Former club member Danny Thomas made a welcome return with a practical follow on to his presentation from April 2014 on wedding photography this time with his assistant Neil. A great deal of thanks is extended to our models Kelly Wolf-Rogers and Paul Walker. Danny is an experienced wedding photographer and his insights on the processes of one of the biggest days a couple can possibly have had broader implications for the practice of portraiture and event photography. Weddings are all about the couple and not about models or sitters and because it is about crowds, venues, individuals and their interactions; because it something that happens under intense time pressures; because you can make a list of 50 easily to 125 without difficulty “Must have” shots; because the more time you spend in post production the more you dilute your earnings. You have to be prepared and it pays to be a Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-ista.
The chief determinant though, is your ability to communicate and that is what we are going to discuss this week.
That doesn’t mean that there is no room for skilled post production, there is, but you don’t want to be spending it on cloning out errant tree branches growing out of people’s heads and as Danny pointed out, car parks and security fences do not make for good backgrounds. Not an issue if it’s not in the shot in the first place. There is also a potential issue with that “Must have” shots list I can spot, and that comes down to the how and the why you chose that photographer to do your wedding, or from the live view side of the camera, why your client has chosen you. You may be hired on price, reputation, recommendation, random internet search, other personal/mystical/religious grounds or you may be hired for the look you give your photographs – your style. Be careful to find out, especially if you think it is the last one.
You may persuade/kid yourself that it is your style the client is buying (they are going to get it anyway but you really want that to help rather than hinder), but you cannot rule out any of the former and you need to find out how much of all these things feed into your clients choice. The client may even make suitably impressed noises about your style, but this is a complex buying decision. Your room to interpret needs to be set out and agreed beforehand, not as a limiter of your artistic interpretation but as a matter of managing your clients expectations. You need to have the conversation. That conversation is part of what the customer is paying for and conversations in general are what we are going to talk about this week. View it, if you will, as pre-production.
The whole talking thing is big. There are conversations you need to have before and after the event. If you don’t have the right conversations with prospective clients before the event you will not be part of the event, or to summarise in two words: “No sale”. Without going into the psychology of selling (and weddings can be stupendously expensive things these days, and there is a whole other conversation to be had about that in another place at another time) you and the client have to reach a win-win situation where both sides conception of value meet in a bargain. You need to set out the context of the event in the client’s mind. You need to have a clear idea of that context in your mind. You are being hired for your technical prowess, that is a given for the client, but it doesn’t make you right. “The customer“, in the words of Mr Selfridge himself, “Is always right”.
OK some customers are rude, some arrogant beyond belief, some controlling to the point that they are impossible to work with. Photographers are not immune from these behaviours either. You need to have the sales conversation(s) beforehand if you are going to make this work, if you are going to take the client. Some clients are bad for business and mental health. Photographers too. You decide. The client decides. Remember that it is a bargain that is being struck, both sides need to feel the win. Each customer will have different experiences of photographers they bring to the bargain and will have different levels of knowledge about photography. Some will have no particular idea what they require others will come with a list borne of hundreds of hours of internet research. The key, as Stephen R. Covey put it, “First seek to understand, then to be understood”.
Locations duly scouted and noted in good time and those notes reviewed on the day, the ceremony itself takes centre stage. Well centre in the sense that it is, in the modern way of things, the middle of three acts. The preparation, the ceremony, the reception. All have certain expectations and all have their own challenges. Today’s wedding photographer faces long, pressured days on location. The conversations now are more immediate but the need for them to be focused and constant is of the utmost importance. Directions have to be given, but they have to be both accurate and concise and appropriate in tone and manner. A Drill Sergeant communicates accurately and distinctly. This is great when the only option is to fix bayonets and charge. If the occasion has deteriorated that far leave. Otherwise working with people is by far the most productive method.
This is truly where the art of delivering customer satisfaction lies. Communicating with people who are not used to having their photograph taken at an event that is not about the photography until everything is done and dusted is precisely what this is about. You have to find those small windows in the timeline to take charge but not to give offence. This takes practice. Some people are better at this than others, agreed, but this is just a start. Going back to Covey again you need, as he set out, to “Sharpen the saw”. That means you need to keep practicing, the photography and the talking to people – when was the last time you took the camera out just to practice a certain technique? Let them know what is going on – don’t give them rambling explanations of your artistic vision. “Can you …I need you to … That will look great if you ….” and so on. And feedback. And encouragement. Encouraging feedback is twice as good.
The presentation phase can be the most nerve-wracking of all, after all there is no going back. It is still a communication process. If you want feedback, if you want customer recommendations and referrals, if you want to develop your business and your photographic practice then you have to engage with the client in order to leave the door open to future business. Just giving them a link to a Dropbox folder does not cut the mustard. You are selling a service. You may create a product, but you are selling a service. The thing about a service is it stops when you stop delivering it. The legacy is highly individualised, no two photographs are ever exactly the same because they are two different moments in history. Services are perishable and non standard. That’s why communication is such a big part of the deal.
N E X T M E E T I N G
ROC Round 4 – Judgement Day.
Two away days to cover as last weeks scheduled blog got displaced. Hopefully back on track now. An unexpected opportunity to tour a Tannery courtesy of member Nick Hale replaced our scheduled Millennium Square trip the week before last and a trip to Blaise Hamlet last week both threw up some tricky light conditions, namely the lack of it and flat light with low contrast. The Thomas Ware & Sons Tannery was formed 175 years ago. The process and buildings are fantastic material and I look forward to seeing members images after the summer’s road trips. Thanks Nick, that was a fascinating evening and all the members were suitably impressed, I thought. Blaise Hamlet was built to house the workers who serviced the John Nash designed main house of the Blaise Castle Estate when they retired. John Harford bought the estate land in 1795 for £13,000 (a bargain £1.2m in today’s coin, using the Retail Price Index, but the average wage in 1795 was circa £20 per anum, in 2014 £25,000 – Source EH.Net ) The castle itself was a folly built as part of the evolving grand design of the estate.
The sun was hidden by a uniform blanket of rain-threatening cloud for both events, which was a pity, as the plentiful sky lights and doorways held the promise of some photogenic lighting in the tannery and the warm coloured stone of the main house and the intertwining of nature and construction to be found at the Blaise cottages (cue debate on the use of buildings to reinforce social order) offer a lot of subtleties that contrasting light brings to the fore. So, if photography is about light, and it is all about light physically, what do we do in the absence or limitation of it? The obvious answer to this is to provide our own, but this is not always feasible, so this week we are going to look at shooting in low light situations, what can and what cannot be reasonably achieved and the costs of doing so in terms of quality. We shall be looking more closely at ISO, the more mysterious member of the Exposure Triangle.
The options on camera are, basically, open the aperture, select a lower shutter speed, or select a higher ISO. The other useful option is to use additional, artificial lighting, either constant light or flash/strobe. A tripod can help with longer exposures. The two other options that spring to mind are focus on details rather than panoramas or switch to black and white, but these are variations, though very useful ones (yes photography is about details and exclusion but we are talking about large buildings here remember and in general at the moment, not in particular). Then there is the pack-up-go-home option and its local variant, pack-up-go-home-come-back-another-day. But where’s the challenge in that and where the learning opportunities? Are you a photographer or a Sherpa?
ISO stands for the International Standards Organisation, doesn’t just apply to cameras, it does exactly what it says on the tin, publish standards for a huge variety of items, systems and products. One of them covered film “speed” or the way that film reacted to light, more specifically, the sensitivity of the crystals in the emulsion applied to the transparent film base react to light. The most widely used standard was the American Standards Association (ASA now known as ANSI, the American National Standards Institute) and that was eventually adopted by the ISO (DIN or the Deutsches Institut für Normung e.V. was used by Agfa among others and had a different numbering system) ISO was carried over to digital processors by the manufacturers, the familiar making sense when introducing a new way of doing something.
Of the three parts of the exposure triangle ISO is the one that acts directly on the sensor. The other two parts, aperture and shutter speed work by throttling the amount of light before it reaches the sensor. ISO directly plugs into the sensor to alter its sensitivity to the amount of light reaching it with its own particular characteristics. With aperture it is depth of field and with shutter speed it is motion blur. ISO can boost it. It can also cut it to a point. There is a constant where the sensor will provide the best quality image, usually around 100 ISO and a group of ISO numbers where very little difference is made by the sensor manipulating the light received, but gradually, as with faster film emulsions, there comes a point where the image will begin to noticeably deteriorate with the incursion of noise. Noise is a product of the signal moving around the sensor, and is a function of all electrical circuits. How much signal (desired data) there is and how much poor data there is in relation to it. As poor light produces more poor data (noise), and the chip amplifies that data to produce the image, the quality starts to deteriorate as artefacts generated by the process become more apparent. All sensors will have a certain amount of noise present at any ISO, it’s part of the mechanics of the sensor. The amount of noise as a proportion of the overall signal determines the reproductive quality of the image. When the light is good and the ISO is set at or close to the speed of the chip then the signal is strong and the noise is low but gradually this inverts the more boost is applied. When you amplify the signal you amplify the noise in the circuit, when the signal to noise ratio is good this doesn’t matter much, but noise will increase as you boost the signal and it will be an increasing amount of what is going on. Hence, well, noise at high ISO’s.
On the part of the photographer getting to know your cameras useable limitations – and it is a judgement thing rather than a given absolute – we have to judge how much noise we are prepared to put up with in an image. There are ways of limiting its effects in post production, also in camera with some models, but the pay-off is a softening of the image. Also do not forget the idea of an optimal viewing distance, as a rule of thumb 1.5 – 2 times the length of the diagonal of the viewing area (works for tv’s too) AND the minimum pixels per inch – calculated by dividing 3438 by the viewing distance). So that is pretty much it, without getting over my head in technical details. ISO and noise.
Tonight – Millennium Square. Meet under the big shiny ball at 19:00 hours (7 PM).