1.14.2017

Always learning.

Learn the plan. Execute to the plan. Then make a new plan.

I think there are two kinds of workers in the world. There are those that want to master the process in front of them and then keep doing the same process over and over again as long as they get a paycheck. The idea of learning new things seems threatening and difficult and is to be avoided. Then there are workers who become restless after mastering one craft and are ready to move on and learn new things all the time. Many people are incremental learners while a different group are explorers who benefit from frequent flashes of satori and then move off to try something completely new. 

From an economic point of view it would seem that people who avoid new tasks and new training would have a financial advantage because they have attained (for the moment) a tested mastery which is efficient in its regular application. It's a tested process; all that remains is to frequently activate the process and monitor it. The downfall of this approach to working life is what generally happens during periods of technological disruption. The process (and the worker) become unnecessary and retraining must occur if the paychecks are to continue. 

The slower, or more reticent a person is to embrace new training the less financially stable they become. For the second group, the people who would rather starve than do the same process over and over again are experts in retraining because they do it constantly. 

I've watched so many disruptions to the imaging business in the last twenty years. First was the move toward digital imaging and away from film. I heard countless people, who had mastered the basic steps of shooting with film, renounce digital and maintain the use of film in their businesses long after the writing was on the wall and the need to transition was obvious to everyone else. The slow to adapt perished, financially. It happened with post processing. It happened in transitions from early cameras to more capable cameras, and it's happening again as demand for video eclipses falling demand for producing photography as a commercial business.  It happened to specialized studio car photographers who saw their talents superseded by CAD experts who could take a digital wireframe and "skin" it in any flavor, color and texture. Voila, instant car... Those graphics suppliers are thriving because they've mastered a process that emerged from a previous,  disrupted discipline. 

This is scary if you were fixed on the idea that you would learn how to pose people and how to use a still camera the same way over and over and over again, getting exactly the same results and billing the same amount of money each time. Especially scary when the market for what it is you have learned to do begins an accelerating decline. It's like passing out from blood loss. By the time you realize you are losing consciousness from blood loss it is likely too late for you to put pressure on your own wound and take other lifesaving actions. The people who survive are the ones who take immediate action. Better yet, survival is most probable, at least in our industry, for the people who constantly look to the future and prepare. And continually learn.

About two years ago I looked at the general advertising and business marketplaces and did some research. Fees for photography were stagnant and demand for most photographers working in the commercial markets was down. On the other hand video had surpassed still imaging (by a good margin) on the internet and was becoming more of a mainstream advertising and marketing tool for companies large and small. On and off the internet.

When I looked at video from the point of view of a photographer I could see that there were things I could bring to the process that were desirable. I have vast experience lighting with all sorts of tools, including the constant light sources required by video. I have spent a good portion of my working life directing people who end up in front of my cameras for one reason or another. I was pretty sure the ability to direct people, and to build a rapport with them, would also be a worthwhile skill in the video production business. 

My weak spots were the nuts and bolts of audio, the aesthetics of making the camera move, or making the people in front of my camera move, and in the editing. While I love to tell stories I needed to learn how to tie visuals together, from idea to idea, in a way that would not take people attention away from the story. Finally, I needed to learn the toughest lesson for most photographers: that we are not trying to make one achingly beautiful image we are trying to tell a whole story in a believable way. And that has been the hardest thing for me to learn. 

At some point in the late Fall last year I started to set out some goals and guiding concepts for my work in 2017. I had experienced success in putting together large and small video projects in 2016 but I could see that I would have to commit to learning more and delivering more expertise if I wanted to grow the video side of my business this year. My goal for 2017 is to have 50% of my business income derive from producing video for clients. That's a big change for someone who has depended on only still photography income to provide for everything in the family budget. At times I feel like I'm walking into a long dark hall...

So, how do I retrain? I try to learn all the time. I've read dozens of books on audio and video production. I've worked through books on scriptwriting and editing and, after every bit of new knowledge comes my way I grab a camera and a microphone and practice what I've learned with a camera in my hand. I find that I have to try each step for myself and internalize it before I can really understand it. In down time, like waiting for the next person to come into the Acme conference room for a portrait, I write small scripts and map out related visuals.

My best sources for much about making good video comes from the online learning resource, Lynda.com. The depth of information about Final Cut Pro X alone was worth a year's subscription. Watching Anthony Artis hook up a mixer to his video camera and set the controls was perfect. The tutorials on composition made me re-think much of what I do as a still photographer. 

While I've spent hundreds of hours reading, watching and learning, the one black hole in the process is watching the "free" channels on Youtube and on various websites, about video. On almost every site the content is nothing more than an endless stream of product reviews. If you allow yourself to get stuck in the review sites you'll waste massive amounts of time learning about new gear and fueling your addictive desire for the latest and greatest stuff. And that sucks away the time you need to spend actually learning the basic processes and concepts. You'll become an expert in the various camera and microphone models available with little practical knowledge beyond how to turn the units on. 

I've worked hard to stay away from the gear review sites and it's paid off for me as the owner of a photography business. The last camera that I bought was a Sony RX10iii some nine or ten months ago and I slowed down my "need" to learn about new products to the point where I have bought, in 2016, and now own, far fewer cameras than I have since the days of film. It's liberating because instead of learning that the new "miracle" camera has 2 Db less noise at ISO 1250 than last year's miracle camera I am learning where and when to point the camera I have at the right subjects and to meld them together nicely in post. 

If I were to recommend a strategy to someone who wanted to learn how to shoot good video I'd tell them to put off buying anything until they read a book about writing a script. And then I'd have them watch a series of tutorials on editing. Then I would have them read Blain Brown's book on Cinematography. Only then would I suggest that they buy (or borrow) some gear and get to work on their practice. Because, forearmed with intent and basic knowledge, they would understand what it was the gear would help them to accomplish. Too often the gear is just an unused trophy. A monument to one's purchasing power and credit scores. 

Here is a lesson. Pick up your favorite video camera, zoom the lens to about the equivalent focal length of 50mm, point it at something or someone and record, handheld, for 30 seconds. Just 30 seconds. Then look at the results on a 60 inch television. Now you understand why you need a tripod. A good tripod. 

Here is a lesson. Take your camera to a crowded park, a food court at a mall, a busy coffee shop. Bring along a friend then turn on your camera and interview them in one of these environments, using the built-in microphones in your camera. Take everything home and listen to the resulting audio on a good pair of headphones. Congratulations! You now understand why you need more flexible microphone solutions. 

Here is a lesson. Go out without a script and shoot some pretty video. What ever catches your eye. Go home and watch it from beginning to end. Oh Boy!!! You just realized why a script is so important...

In each case the learning experience has nothing to do with the need for better gear, sometimes just the right gear. Or the right planning. Or the right subject matter. 

Here are some things I learned this week: Intellectually it seems  very straight forward to stand behind a camera for two hours and document a corporate conference. You will be behind a camera that has a long zoom lens and all you really need to do is follow the corporate speakers as they amble around on the stage and talk. Oh, and you'll also need to pay attention to the sound. 

But there's the initial question of just how to compose the frame. Should you be tight or loose? How can you smoothly change direction with the speaker? At 600mm will adjusting the focus with the ring on the lens cause visible camera shake? How much headroom should I leave? 

I learned to separate the monitor physically from the camera so that I can change batteries on the monitor without effecting the camera. I was unsure of what to do when I stopped to change a monitor battery because I would be unable to keep the speaker in the frame and to follow him. My solution was to slowly zoom out to a wider shot of the stage, adequately covering all of the speaker's habitual "race track," lock the camera down, change the battery and then zoom back in slowly while picking the speaker's motion up again.  It actually worked. 

I have so much to learn but learning is so much fun. I have my first video assignment out of the country at the beginning of the next month, right after yet another video project for a tech company, and I'm already deep into research about the best way to bring in the equipment I'll need. 

The upshot of all this is that I am very excited to wake up and get to work everyday. There's just so much new stuff to think about. And it certainly seems to keep the business rocking along. No complaints from the CFO; even after dropping some serious money on new lights. It's all fun. 

Trying to be a better videographer is making me a better photographer. Let's see if trying to be a better scriptwriter makes me into a better blogger....(sigh.)