June 13, 2008: So Much to Know!

Well, the brochures are out the door! If you want one and didn't receive it, just drop me a line and I'll be sure to send one to you! Hopefully they'll be well-received and maybe even send some business my way. Now that these are done, I've taken a couple days to just breathe (breathing is good!). Now it's time to move on to the next marketing push. A sad truth about any small business — probably any business at all — is that you've got to spend time (and money) marketing if you're going to survive. It doesn't matter how good you are, if no one knows about you, you won't get business.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what goes into being a successful photographer. There are a number of things that I think most people don't think about. For one, personality is important. A lot of the business is interacting with clients, and if you don't have the sort of personality that gets along well with lots of different kinds of people, you're going to be hurting yourself. Closely related to this is attitude. A positive "can-do" attitude is an infectious thing (as is the opposite), and can profoundly affect how everyone involved in a project performs. It helps a lot, too, if you really enjoy what you're doing!

Another thing is generic technical savvy. Cameras are increasingly complicated devices, and the "digital darkroom" (i.e., a computer and it's associated software) are the essence of "technical" these days. Even lighting controls and triggers, marketing (web-sites!), finances (accounting software) and photo archiving require a level of comfort working with high-tech hardware and software. It's always changing, too. You can't afford to be an "old dog" in this business. If you stop learning new tricks, the competition will pass you by in a heartbeat. Sometimes it seems like just staying informed about everything is a full-time job!

I've found, too, that a basic understanding of physics is indispensable. Understanding lighting means knowing about the inverse-square law to understand how moving a light affects the brightness. It means understanding the difference between umbra and penumbra to understand what makes a light "hard" or "soft". It means a basic understanding of spectroscopy to appreciate the quality of different lights and how additive and subtractive colors work (and when to use which one). It's also helpful to be able to understand, on a simple level, how a digital camera's sensor works. This lets you really "get" things like channel saturation, posterization, the effects of ISO and exposure on noise, etc. Sure, all these things can be learned empirically, but having an understanding of the physics behind them makes them all make sense and fit together well. (Or maybe I'm just a total nerd....)

A specialized part of the physics understanding that I find particularly necessary is optics. Chosing the right equipment for a shoot means understanding things like how aperture affects depth of field, the effects of chromatic aberation and what exacerbates it, distortions caused by different lenses and how to combat them, the effects of polarization, and trade-offs between lens speed, focal length, flexibility and weight. I guess it's possible to know what to do empirically, but it's so much easier when the optics makes sense to you!

You also need to have a basic understanding of artistic principles, too. Things like rules of composition (the "rule of thirds" for example), basic color theory, how perspective works, understanding things like line, form and texture, the role of light and shadow in providing depth, etc. If you're doing commercial photography, as I am, you need to have a basic understanding of typography, too, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of raster vs. vector images in different applications. And then there's that undefinable aesthetic sense: what looks good and what doesn't.

You have to know what your clients and "downstream consumers" need, too. Is your work going to be commercially printed? Then you'd better understand the relationship between dots-per-inch and pixels-per-inch, the difference between an RGB image and a CMYK image (and things like the difference between "registration black" and "rich black"). You might need to know how to produce four-color separations, or an EPS file. You need to speek the language of picas and points, of bleed and differing color spaces. If you're sending your shots off to a lab (or printing them yourself), you'd better understand the ideas behind ICC color profiles and the effects of different ink sets and media. If you're producing content for web sites, you need to understand jpeg compression, the relative advantages and dissadvantages of jpg, gif, png and tif formats, differences in how different browsers render content, etc.

I'm sure there are lots of other things, too. Some I'm just not thinking of right now, and others that I probably can't appreciate because I lack that knowledge or ability. I'd love to hear what sorts of things you find helpful or downright essential. Maybe you could contribute something to the "how to" section of this site — I'm always willing to learn from anyone! Or maybe I touched on something you want to know more about. In any case, let me know!

Happy shooting!

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