11.24.2014

When hubris and lazy technique come back to bite you on the butt...


Many who read the Visual Science Lab blog don't do photography for a living but some of you do. If you are making photographs as a hobby or passion mistakes can be tossed with little consequence but if you do imaging work for living getting into a lazy habit or believing too deeply in your own bulletproof powers of technical mastery can be dangerous to your reputation and your wallet.

There's a running joke in the business: If the client complains about a technical fault in an image you respond by telling them, "That's what makes it Art! I intended it to be blurry." I'm here to tell you that response rarely works...

I've been letting myself get lazy with nuts and bolts technical stuff in photography and I got a wake-up call last week. I was taking a few last shots of a building for a client after having spent the bulk of the day making portraits for them. They wanted an exterior shot to use on the website and didn't think it would be a big deal to "just snap something on the way out the door." I took the bait. I loaded the car in the fading light, brought my camera up to my eye, composed adequately and then banged off a half dozen shots. I noticed that the light was falling and the shutter speed on the camera was hovering around 1/30th at f5.6 ISO 400. I didn't take it seriously, after all either the camera or the lens was sure to have state of the art image stabilization and I knew from experience that feature would probably save me from having to haul out the tripod and do the whole thing right. Besides, I'm a people photographer, not a damn building jockey.

I post processed all of the portraits and I was happy to see that I covered myself very well. There was a range to chose from and since the portraits were the focus of the shoot and I'd spent time and energy to light them, I'd carried good technique all the way through. But the outside images were a whole other story.

They were a bit dark. I'm sure the camera meter saw some sky over the top of the buildings and stopped down to "compensate." But the big issue was the fact that the images just weren't sharp. Not sharp enough for the "new" web and certainly not sharp enough for anyone to use in print. Dreadful. Embarrassing. Hell hath no fury greater than that reserved for people who knowingly cut corners?
Of course, the exterior shots weren't part of the original brief and they weren't part of the bid so I guess I could have just shrugged and told the client (nice client) that they didn't turn out and let it go at that.

But there's something too embarrassing about flubbing 101 stuff. I wouldn't be able to look that client in the eye again if I blew off the bad exterior shots. As a basic tradesperson you have to have pride in the quality of your work. On boring jobs sometimes that's all there is...

I should have taken the few extra minutes to pull the big tripod out of the car, set the camera on it, fine tuned the camera settings and even used the self timer to prevent any vibration. But I didn't. I held the camera in my aging hands after a ten hour day of set ups and shoots and car loading. I proved to myself in that moment how fallible I could be.

So, what was my punishment? It was a beautiful day here in Austin yesterday after a week of rain, cold weather and gray skies. Just the right kind of day for swimming and walking around the lake or taking a camera out for downtown excursion. But before I could do that I had to make good. I selected the right camera and a back up, the right lens and a back up and the stout Gitzo Studex tripod from the studio and I drove the eighteen miles to the client's location, carefully lined up the shot, used the electronic level in the camera, even stood on the top of my little two step ladder. And I re-made the shot. And I bracketed it. And I grabbed a graded neutral density filter and brought down the rich blue sky a bit. I shot at the lowest regular ISO of the camera. I used f8 because I knew it to be the sharpest aperture on the lens. Then I got back in the car and headed to the studio where I processed the raw file diligently and put it into the folder for client delivery.  Then I enjoyed the rest of my Sunday.

The client got the work this morning. He called me a little while ago. He was curious. What happened to the gray, evening shot he'd seen me take? "I didn't like what I'd shot so I came back yesterday when the sun was out and re-shot." I said. He paused a second and then said, "That's why we use you." And he hung up. He didn't know I muffed the shot the first time around. I am sure he thinks I did the best job I could on that. But I left him with a totally different marketing message. I hope I left him with the idea that I'd go the extra mile. And when it's clearly your fault when something goes wrong that extra mile isn't only good client service it's also penance. And a bit of penance is a good way to remind a working photographer not to get sloppy.

I've gotten used to shooting handheld even when I know an image would be better generated on a tripod. I've gotten used to amping up the ISO even when I know full well that the image would be better shot at the lowest ISO, even if that means sticking it on a cumbersome tripod. But mostly I know that a combination of many good technical disciplines is what it takes to differentiate our commercial work from many other people's.

But this isn't just a personal mea culpa and/or advice for other people who license the rights to use their images to clients, it's also a reminder to everyone who photographs with intention to remember that good technique is never out of style. And while it might take a few minutes more to drag out the tripod (or the lights or a meter or the right lens....) good skills will almost certainly make more of a difference in the final image than switching from a Canon Rebel to a Canon 5Dmk3 (or the equivalent analogy in another brand). Now chastened I have placed the big tripod in the trunk of my car both as a ready tool and a reminder. Good technique can sometimes be the thing that separates photographicus nobilus from the lesser species.


6 comments:

Gato said...

You may have saved me. I've been getting sloppy in just the same way - counting on high ISO and stabilization when I needed to pull out a tripod or lights.

Maybe I'll learn from your experience and avoid a harder lesson.

As to amateur or professional, I am mostly retired and rarely charge much, if anything, for photography. But I mostly photograph people, people who have invested time, effort and money to prepare and show up for the session. I owe it to them to do everything I can to make the event a success. Including use a tripod when called for.

Ray M said...

Very, very valuable reminder. Thank you. I'm a vacation snapshot shooter, but I can see the difference between shots I've worked hard on and the ones I was lazy with.

Clay Olmstead said...

Even for an amateur, being lazy means you haven't seen effectively - and so you've blown the opportunity to 'be there now' as fully as you could have. It might not make a monetary difference, but you still lose a little.

G Gudmundsson said...

I'm grateful for this post. I have - and I think the same applies to many people - become too demanding of my tools...

I pick up my camera and snap away, often in bad light, and think that the camera should automatically produce a sharp picture...

and when that does not happen, I blame the tool ...

thank you for the reminder ...

Howard said...

"I didn't like what I'd shot so I came back yesterday when the sun was out and re-shot." I said. He paused a second and then said, "That's why we use you."

Just about the best response a pro would like to hearm next to the cheque dropping into the mail box.

Scott Kirkpatrick said...

I like your blurry example, for the feeling it conveys. Apparently it was not the one which you reshot. If you take a look over at TOP a few days ago there was a post asking for blurry submissions, INTENTIONALLY blurry. Many complied, but a few said that it was really hard for them.