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No, But I Can Learn

i can learn

Do you know how to load a roll of film?
Work a light meter?
Edit slides on a light table?
Scan film?
Color correct scans?
Track a photo inventory?
Submit photos to clients?
Work with a stock agency?
Make prints?
Pack a camera bag?
Ship equipment?
Set up lights?
Scout a location?
Drive on the left side of the road?
Order food in French?
Clean a digital sensor?
Work in Photoshop?
Create a workflow?
Edit a Portfolio?
Build a creative brief?
Create a composite image?
Shoot from a helicopter?
Work 30 days straight (with a hangover)?
Use a prototype camera?
Shoot and edit video?
Manage a huge equipment inventory?
Develop filters for a photo app?
Layout a book?
Film a TV show?
Write a magazine article?
Build a community?
Hang an art installation?
Survive in Manhattan?
Film a Live broadcast?
Write a blog post?

I didn’t. When I started working in photography as Chase’s assistant, I was a blank slate. I like to think I still am. Many of these skills have become obsolete. Others did not even exist when I started. Knowing how to do everything is not the goal. Knowing that you can learn is everything.

Preset Photo Adjustment Follow Up — Debate is Split, Scott Chimes In

lift-and-stampIt’s been gratifying to see that the great preset debate from my earlier post is not isolated to this office, instead there seems to be a lot of interest in this topic and a fairly even split in favor of and against using adjustment presets.  The majority of comments landed somewhere in the neighborhood of “I use them in moderation in order to get initial settings or ideas, then custom tweak from there.”

This is not a bad place to be.  And yet, my presets sit to the side of my toolbar gathering dust 99% of the time.

Why?  I’m constantly amazed at the extent to which each and every photograph is an individual.  A small wiggle of the lights, camera, clouds, sun, model; any of it can change an image materially.  This doesn’t just apply to the technical values of the image, it also applies to the mood and aesthetic essence.

It is this aesthetic essence that I try to ‘read’ when I start post production on an image.  Does this feel like a dark or light image?  Is it punchy and loud, or quiet and subtle?  Does the color add value or create a distraction?  I find that the images have some capacity to direct me in my approach.

How does this ‘approach’ translate to real action?  Here are the steps with which I approach a new collection of images that come across my desk:

  1. Edit.  I don’t want to be distracted by volume when retouching.  I only want to spend cycles working on images that are fundamentally good.  To that end, I complete an edit before any retouching begins.  For more on this topic, take a peek at this post on my editing process.
  2. Start Playing.  After the edit I spin through the selects, somewhat aimlessly at first.  I might select a certain image that grabs my fancy, pull the exposure or white balance around a bit, yank another couple of sliders around.  Maybe I get engaged at this point and start a full process with this image, maybe I leave it totally unfinished and move along to play with another select.  Eventually I stumble upon an image that starts to take shape and piques my interest.
  3. Dig Deeper.  This is where a sort of conversation takes place between me and the image.  At the risk of sounding like a total dork, it’s kind of like the first dance with a new partner.  There is a give and take – a push and pull.  On one hand I’m controlling the look of the image, on the other hand it’s letting me know what it wants to look like.  I’ve seen images that look horrible in color and brilliant in black and white, I’ve seen images that are noisy and cluttered when properly exposed, but simple and refined when blown out.  Definition and clarity can make an image crisp, or can produce devastating halos that scream ‘overprocessed’.  I’ve found that the only way to really understand an image’s potential and limitations is to experiment and follow your gut.  It is my firm belief that using presets at this stage has the unintended side effect of actually limiting creativity and experimentation when they’re intended to do the opposite.
  4. Spread the Love.  Once the image that has grabbed me initially has had a significant initial work up, it’s time to see if the aesthetic works with it’s neighbors.  While I avoid presets like the plague during my initial experimentations, I have no problem applying the adjustments I’ve made to the first image to the rest of the collection.  This is sort of a hail mary play.  Sometimes it’s an acute failure; the image I worked up initially is  an anomaly and it’s optimal settings are pure poison on the next frame in the edit.  On the other hand, sometimes there is enough similarity between the images that this Lift/Stamp move across the whole shoot delivers ‘instant gold’.  Usually, it’s somewhere in between, i.e. the few surrounding images from the exact same scenario sync well, where the ones that are a few hours apart need to be reworked entirely.
  5. Rebuild or Fine Tune.  Depending on how well the Lift/Stamp worked, it’s time to either undo the Stamp and start fresh on a second image, or in the best case scenario all that’s required is some tweaking to the individual images.
  6. Export.  At this point there are a pile of selected images that share a similar look and feel and that have each received some individual love in the RAW processing.  If there is a client review to be done, we’ll create a web gallery or send over preview files.  If we’ve got to go crazy on a small volume of advertising images it’s time to get into Photoshop and make magic.

Lest this all be too simple, I should share two exceptions to this workflow.

Ongoing Projects.  Chase shot for almost three years to complete the Seattle 100 project.  By the second month of shooting we had perfected the shooting and retouching.  The lights were set up the exact same way each time we shot.  The camera settings were always the same.  The high contrast black and white aesthetic was established and fine tuned.  All we had to do was repeat until we had shot all 100 subjects.  In this instance we relied heavily on our custom preset during the initial broad retouch of images for the web.  The images that went in the book were each custom retouched in Photoshop.

Shooting Tethered.  Almost all of our tethered shooting sessions are set up for the benefit of the client or subject.  It’s a way to instantly share what’s being captured so that tweaks can be made to the shoot in real time.  While Chase and I are both able to envision what a RAW image can look like of with some post work, often the clients or subjects are not trained to do the same.  To this end, Chase and I will generally collaborate on a rough post production aesthetic at the same time we’re setting up the lighting and getting test shots at the beginning of the shoot.  We’ll then use Aperture’s ability to apply  presets while importing tethered shots.  That way, the images already look close to what we’re trying to achieve the second they show up on the monitor.  This makes the clients and talent happy.

tether-preset

The important takeaway is that each shoot is approached with a fresh set of tools.  Just as it’s often more effective to build a house from the ground up than to do a full remodel, I find that it’s more effective to invest more time on the front end of the post production process in order to generate a custom look tailored to the collection than it is to drop presets on the images, and then have to dig around to figure out what’s doing good and what’s doing harm.

If these methods makes sense for you, feel free to adopt them.  If you have developed a workflow that utilizes presets more heavily than ours, by all means, do your thing.  The true beauty of the proliferation of digital imaging technology is that it gives people an ever increasing set of tools for creative expression.  Heck, a couple months down the road you just might find me extolling the virtues of a great Aperture preset I just found online.  The only constant in this landscape is change.  Experiment, have fun, and make things that you find to be beautiful.

Preset Photo Adjustments: Instant Gold or Drab Repetition?

Adjustment_PresetsScott here. Many of you know that I’m the primary retoucher here around the Chase Jarvis studio. I was surprised to get into a fairly spirited debate the other day with some of my co-workers. The topic? Adjustment presets and plug-ins in Aperture or Lightroom or Photoshop.

I’ve got a strong opinion on this, but this experience has once again reminded me that there are a thousand ways to skin a cat and that my way is just that, my way.

Instead of letting a debate rage inside the office and then fade out, I figured, why not make it public? I want to hear from you.

Do you use presets for the post production of your images?
Do you make your own, or download them from other users online?
Do you use them for initial inspiration, or to create your final files?
What are your favorites and why?

I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Don’t be shy. For those of you who give a rip, I’ll follow up this post with my personal take and we’ll all be a little more informed.

Chase Jarvis TECH: Scott’s personal Olympus Pen E-P2 Camera Kit

Is it bigger than a breadbox?  No.  It’s my new Olympus Pen E-P2 camera kit, and it’s awesome.

As the guy who manages the inventory of equipment here at Chase Jarvis Inc., it’s fair to say that I know a thing or two about what it takes to pull off a photo shoot.  Every time we roll down the street or fly around the world, I pack and move cases of gear.  No matter how light we’re packing, we tip the scales at at least 100 lbs.

In my free time I have access to any and all of this equipment.  A dream come true for any photographer.  Unless you spend your free time deep in the mountains or on travel adventures where an itinerary is unheard of and solitude is the end goal.  In that case, there’s no place for hundred pound cases.  Hell, an extra 20 pounds in the backpack can have a major impact.

This fact has always put me at a loss, oscillating between DSLR kits that feel bloated and obtrusive, and high end point and shoots like the Canon G series that while impressive for their size, just don’t have the gusto when you’re in the trenches.  What to do, what to do.

Well, like many, I took notice when Panasonic and Olympus came out with offerings in the new and exciting Micro Four Thirds format…. Continue Reading →

Models Know Best: What It Takes to Be A Great Photographer

Action_Photo_Tips_1

Hi everyone. Scott here. Ever wonder what the models and athletes you’re shooting are thinking?  No, the answer is not: nothing.  Contrary to popular stereotype, most of these people are bright and driven and are working hard on their end of the camera.  I know, it looks easy, but that’s the trick, the good ones always make it look easy.  Well, I’m no fashion model, but I have spent enough time on the sharp end of the camera to drop a little knowledge of what it takes to be a great photographer.

Before I ever got a gig in the photography industry, and long before I was Chase’s right hand man, I had already spent hundreds of hours working with Chase.  Early in his career Chase was heavily involved in action sports photography.  At the same time I was an up-and-coming skier looking to make a name for myself in the sport.  Inevitably our paths crossed and we packed the car and headed for the mountains, this was the first of many adventures.  I am proud to say that our collaborations resulted in the publication of images in every major ski magazine in North America, several others in worldwide publications, and countless ads.  I picked up sponsors, and Chase became one of the premier photographers in the industry.  I wanted to see if there was a formula for this success from my point of view as an athlete working with Chase.  After some head scratching, I’ve distilled it down to these six factors which, when combined, make a photographer an unstoppable force… Continue Reading →

Photo Editing 101 – Surviving the Tidal Wave of Data

Aperture Photo Editing
[Scott here with another guest blog post.  Today I hope to save you some time and heartache by giving you the nuts and bolts of editing large volume shoots...]

Painful memories I have: My first breakup, my first deceased pet, my first time moving, but perhaps most painful of them all is this; my first attempt at editing 15,000 photos.  Such overwhelming volume, such slow progress, so many similar photos.  Why, oh why, did they ever create the motor drive!?

The pain from the breakups, pets and moves have only faded a bit, but the pain of volume editing is almost entirely gone.  Call me masochistic, but I think I actually like editing big shoots.  On the surface the challenge is the same as it ever was, but years of photo editing for one of the heaviest trigger fingers in the industry have honed my skills.  And like a young ninja student Continue Reading →

How to Scout Locations for Photo & Video: Part 3 – Gear & Planning

Scouting Gear

[Howdy, Scott here again.  This is the third of a three part series on the steps I take when location scouting as Chase's lead assistant.  In the first two posts we discussed virtual scouting and weather. Now we've done everything that we can do from a desk and it's time to put the rubber to the road.  Good old fashioned Location Scouting.]

Let’s assume we have decided on a region we think will have the right physical characteristics and weather to meet the client’s needs.  Kate and the rest of the production team have kicked into high gear and booked flights, lodging and ground transportation for the crew.  We’ve said goodbye to the spouses and pets and have hopped in planes, trains and automobiles.  Now after a weary day or two of travel we’ve arrived.  It’s time to check in, hang up the shirts, grab a nap, head down to the pool for a refreshing swim and a cocktail, gotta energize, there’ll be work to be done tomorrow.  Oh, were it only so easy…. Continue Reading →

Location Scouting for Photo & Video: Part 2 – Predicting The Weather

Weather

[Scott here...and welcome to the second post in a series of three discussing the steps we take in selecting and scouting locations for our most important photo and video shoots.  In the first post in this series we discussed the process of narrowing in on your locations with computers...."virtual scouting".  Now we'll tackle something a bit less concrete...that great mystery in the sky...no I'm not talking about God, I'm talking about the WEATHER.]

The weather can be the photographer’s best friend or worst enemy.  I can think back on days of perfect powder and blue skies when we nailed a heli-skiing weather window while shooting for REI. I can also think back on being cooped up in a hotel in Chile for weeks on end, waiting for unceasing rain and wind that made outdoor photography a complete impossibility.  

Suffice to say, we’ve learned through many years of shooting outside that there is no way to predict or control the weather, but that there ARE a lot of ways to stack the deck in your favor.  You might even say that we’ve developed a set of rules, and if we follow these rules closely enough, we can usually keep our boots clean and our rain jackets in the car. Today, I’d like to share these secret rules with you. Click ‘continue reading below’… Continue Reading →

Location Scouting for Photo & Video: Part 1 – Virtual Scouting

Virtual Scouting
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[Want to know how we choose where to shoot our most important photo and video projects? Tune in! I'm Scott - Chase's right hand man - and this guest blog post is the first in a series of three where I'll be covering the steps I take in the role of Chase's lead assistant that pertain to scouting shoot locations.  This first post will go over the process of selecting locations from the comfort of your office - aka VIRTUAL SCOUTING.]
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We’re frequently hired to produce and shoot projects that take days or weeks to complete.  In these instances it is very important to be efficient and well planned, as each hour is a significant investment in time and money for the client and whole crew.  That said, as soon as we’ve received a rough concept from our client, we’re thinking about how to best execute.  Our Executive Producer Kate takes on the contracts, travel arrangements, booking talent, getting permits, etc.  My role is to gain as much knowledge about potential locations as possible so that we can be at the right place at the right time for the entire shoot. 

This process starts early.  Once we know what type of environment the client is looking for we begin researching and presenting various location options.  This can be Continue Reading →

Scott’s Guest Blog: Creative Post Production and Why I Have a Hard Time Caring About Stock Photography.

[Note: I'm excited today to announce a new element to this here blog: monthly guest posts from my badass staff. Since each of them are experts in their own right, I figured you'd be interested in hearing some different perspectives. Today, Scott takes the reins and raps about our push for visual impact over "perfection" and how stock photography gives him the willies. Round of applause, please...take it away Scotty...]

We keep a lot of irons in the fire around here. In order to keep tabs on everything, we have a daily morning meeting. One by one, we touch base briefly about each of the projects we’re working on. Photo shoots, video projects, websites, fine art, etc. One of the project headings that comes up for discussion is stock photography. We’ve got quite a large collection of images represented by large stock agencies that we’ve built over the years by filtering older commercial work into the stock machine, but lately, this part of the business model has fallen completely off our grid. It’s normally my job to manage our out-of-house stock collection, so I’ve had to ask myself the important question: Why don’t I get excited to get images delivered to the stock agencies?

The cause has a lot to do with the fact that we’re incredibly busy doing interesting projects with new art and new media. But I also can’t ignore the fact that we just don’t feel inspired by the business of stock photography, at all. Any thrill that was once there from being able to shoot what you want and “get paid” is gone. Here’s why its gone for me… [Click the 'continue reading' link below.]

If you’ve ever worked with a major stock agency, you’ve learned that their editing and technical guidelines have grown more and more refined (read stringent). The goal has been to build a system of rules, protocols, editors and technicians that will help to create a product that appeals to the largest number of buyers and moves images across the market as quickly as possible. These systems completely retooled the business of licensing existing photography. Now the technically good image with perfectly even exposure values, textbook sharpening, and the subject’s eyes balanced appropriately in the right upper third of the image is worth tens or hundreds of dollars instead of thousands. The thousand dollar sales haven’t come to an end, but they’re reduced. And the stock agencies have built countless collections at various price points with uniqueness that increased commensurately with the price. Images now need to be on brand, fit a certain collection or aesthetic, have popular keywordability, be technically perfect. Buyers have to go elsewhere to find images unencumbered by bureaucratic limitations.

As the post production lead here at our studio, I’ll use post as a microcosm for the shift in the stock industry. I learned post production skills out of necessity, and the initial response that I had to the immense power of post production was to make the most technically perfect images that I could. Detail in every pixel. Perfect transitions between light and color values. Smooth, pleasing skin tones. Enhanced eyes and teeth. Erased blemishes. Grey cards, noise reduction plugins, hell, I wrote an article on the minutia of edge specific sharpening. You get the drift. I was a dream come true to stock agencies. Every image that went across my desk was PERFECT.

But creativity requires change. In this instance for me it was embracing the “imperfect”. If you look at Chase’s images that I’ve been working on lately, you won’t find detail in every pixel. More likely you’ll find that the highlights and shadows are gone, the colors have shifted due to a heavy hand with the contrast and saturation controls, the transition areas might be a bit harsh. To help me build this point, I’m going to take a spin through the online portfolio right now, I encourage you to do the same. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

8 of 32. 25%. That’s the number of images in Chase Jarvis’ portfolio that I would let through the system if I were a technical editor at a major stock agency. Not too “good” for someone who is regarded as an world-class professional. Despite, or perhaps due to, these technical “flaws” we continue to get great feedback from creative directors/art buyers and the photographic community. We have embraced a marked shift from technical perfection to *raw visual impact*, and it’s paying off.

So what’s our shift in post production aesthetic got to do with the stock photography market? This change that has happened in balancing of technical perfection with visual interest is not limited to us at Chase Jarvis Inc. It’s sweeping the world. Art buyers and general public alike are ready to see what comes _post_ technical perfection. The rigid control of the industry that allowed Getty, Corbis, and a host of others to dominate the market in the first half of this decade is now the driving force in their regression. While art buyers have limited patience for sifting through images, not one will think twice about investing the time to surf the web longer and further to find the the visual voice that they need to help tell their story. They have turned away from the big, traditional players because they have a constant need to find fearless photography. Post production and all.

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