10.06.2021

Unsolicited thoughts on writing blogs and books about photography. For photographers.


Guy on a bench. 

I've spent a lot of my life writing things. Far more time writing than I have ever spent taking photographs and yet I self-identify as a photographer. And I think it's entirely possible to do both interchangeably. I started my writing career composing advertising copy for residential and commercial real estate clients and then moved fully into copywriting as a job for a number of years. During that time I also made commercial (and many, many personal) photographs that I still like. One career seemed to feed the other. 

When I first started my writing was slow and plodding. I would be wracked with anxiety and it got worse as each deadline approached. But little by little the process improved and the writing became faster and faster. If it's true that one has to do ten thousand hours to master something then it must be equally true that the ten thousand hour mark doesn't connote some binary tipping point but rather represents a continuing arc of improvement, marked at every few hundred hours. One of my friends in the advertising agency days was Cory. He was also a writer and he was a great believer in the value of insouciance. In not particularly caring. In being less attached to the writing at hand. That was his writing super power.

Once I embraced his writer's insouciance ethos and no longer internalized the plodding pain of writing I could work more quickly and fluidly and developed a methodology of rarely looking back. Sure, if a client wanted revisions and the pay clock was running I could revise with the best of them but I'm a big believer that the first idea is often the best idea and each successive rephrasing makes the language more stilted and the reading of it feel kludgy and affected. Often we'd write three different treatments for a commercial or a radio spot in the hopes that the often recalcitrant client would give a nod to at least one of them. I found that the first of each three ads I wrote was often everyone's first choice because it was the freshest idea and the idea generally drove the actual writing. And the rest of the creative process.

In  the 1980's I worked as a creative director at Avanti Advertising and Design. Most of my job duties bounced back and forth between writing and presenting client proposals, and then sitting down and writing the copy for projects. I won a couple dozen Addy Awards for television commercial scripts, radio spots, print ads and longer form projects. But the thing that I think made the work actually connect for audiences was that we were producing so quickly that each piece had an almost nervous freshness to it. The work connected in the moment because it was uninflected/uninfected by folksy turns-of-phrase or colloquialisms. It tended to be straightforward and direct. The more chatty and familiar I tried to make the writing the more I age limited or demographic limited the overall appeal of the project or article. 

The 1990s was a fallow period for my writing in which I mostly typed away at proposals to ad agencies and large companies with the aim of generating paying imaging work. I would modestly say that my writing was probably better than my level of artistic creativity or photographic vision and compelled clients who had less grounding in the visual arts to accept the authority of my words over the subjective appraisal of their own eyes. Meaning that a tight and authoritative proposal carried more weight than a better portfolio of visual work. 

I started writing again in the early part of the 2000s and ghost wrote a book on marketing to women for a dear friend who was a superb presenter and a great advertising idea person but who was terrified at the prospect of writing a book. A contract for which she signed, in a moment of weakness.

One day in 2000, after reading some completely misguided comment about Leica M series cameras on Photo.net I wrote a long article for them about the Leica M system which I had been using, by that time, for over a decade. I was alternately pilloried and praised for the thoughts and, occasionally, got a nice nod of the head about the writing. 500 comments and millions of page views elevated my profile which attracted requests for other articles by photography trade magazines.  I also, briefly, got an honorary membership in LHSA.

I even wrote, for a while, a monthly article about wines and liquors for a local magazine called, Austin Homes and Gardens. A bit later I was writing restaurant and food reviews for Tribeza Magazine. I also provided the photo illustrations for each article. But all the while I was mostly plying my trade as a workaday photographer, open to any and all assignments. Logging 50 or 60 hours a week in the trenches of commerce.

After I got the taste for it again I started writing equipment reviews for Studio Photography Magazine around 2004. One of my articles, written in 2007 was entitled: Minimalist Lighting and talked about using small, Nikon flashes with multi-flash control capability for shoots which I would have done previously with big, traditional strobes. This was around the time that David Hobby started writing his blog about the same topic which he called, Strobist

The Minimalist Lighting article I think struck a chord with readers and photographers because all the writing was backed up by actual images from a high profile job on which I used the multiple (and many) small flashes to light the CEO of Dell Computer for yet another business magazine. Since the small flashes were easier to transport and quicker to work with I started pressing them into every job and writing about actual, real world projects. And illustrating the articles with the same photographs that would end up in high end business magazines. It brought more credibility to both the writing and to me as an "expert" in that narrow field.

The Minimalist Lighting article caught the attention of the owner of Amherst Media, a New York company that publishes how to books about photography almost exclusively. He called to ask if I would like to write a book about the subject and, of course, I did. I sent an outline and they liked the general idea. They sent a check and a contract and I got to work. The book, called Minimalist Lighting. Professional Techniques for Location Lighting. contained about 200 sample and behind the scenes photographs (all generated by me during the project) as well as samples of actual, professional work done for clients. It also contained nearly 50,000 words. I wrote the book over the course of two months but I couldn't take time off to work on the writing exclusively. I had to keep generating income from my paid assignments while also casting and photographing for the book's examples. The advance was much too small to live on. I considered it "ornamental."

I wrote to the outline I had submitted. I wrote the book straight through. I never stepped backwards to revise or re-phrase because I knew my material so well, and the outline was so well organized, that I never second guessed my content or my phrasing. I never presumed to amuse the reader with crafty and arcane word play. Here's the kicker: When I submitted the manuscript, the captions and the photographs, I was certain that an editor or a team of editors would attack the writing and make radical changes. That we'd be on the phone going back and forth about word choices, the clarity and flow of various paragraphs or sections, and much more. I anticipated a somewhat congenial process that would polish my writing for me and generate the kind of product both the publisher and I could be proud of. 

Imagine my surprise when the galleys came in a fat Federal Express envelope and I quickly read through them, looking for wiser direction and helpful suggestions only to find that in the spread of 128 pages there were fewer than two pages of mild corrections. Sometimes the deletion of a word accidentally used twice in a row, or some garbled description in a caption. Of course it had been spell-checked and gone over enough times to ensure that we weren't sending a mistake riddled book out the door but gone forever was my TV induced fantasy of that collegial and famous back and forth between writer and editor that was the plot base for many movies about writers, from the 1950s. and 1960s. (My favorite movie of the type: Paris When it Sizzles).

All along, while typing and self-assigning book photos, I was working 50 and 60 hour weeks accepting all the various commercial photography and video assignments that presented themselves. In a way I think the no nonsense business that is corporate photography helped to shape my writing because in the field of image making for companies like Dell, Motorola, IBM and Time Warner there is no time to revise a boring idea or style. It's imperative to be certain about what you want the image to contain and how you want its style to look. You can't decide, in an executive portrait. session with a CEO, that you want to stop and re-think your lighting, or try two or three new angles you'd never thought of before and had not pre-lit. You have to go in with your best idea and actually execute it; almost by the numbers. There is no re-write for high stakes photographic projects. It just doesn't exist. 

This experience helps form one's perspective for all kinds of projects and most of the application of the experiences demands that you feel strongly about your ideas and that your craft has become so practiced that you can light and set up and even initiate rapport with a fluidity that moves the photo process along. If you have doubts you falter. If you falter you lose time and connection. Lose that and you lose access to the client. It's so simple.

The idea of sitting on the front porch in Spring with a typewriter and a ream of cotton bond typing paper, sipping a cup of tea and watching the clouds swirl in a mesmerizing dance while waiting for inspiration to strike might be a wonderful remembrance of some time in the distant, literary past but it has never represented for me the practice of active writing. Of writing for money

The first book with Amherst was highly successful and royalties helped get my family through the recession of 2008-2009. That first book out of the gate sold through its initial press run in a matter of days. Having it reviewed, on publication, by David Hobby at Strobist.com was a huge blessing and one for which I am still so grateful. 

Amherst Media must have been happy because we eventually did five books for them. All written while working full time at my "other" job. All illustrated in my "spare time." So, five books written, illustrated, edited and published between 2008 and 2010. Or 2.5 books per year. Each between 40, 000 to 45,000 words of content. Each with over one hundred+ new illustrations of process. 

The next project was my novel, The Lisbon Portfolio. Love it or hate it the project was fun for me. It comes in at a little under 500 pages and was launched in 2013. I self-published and it was the least profitable of the books for me but the one with the longest tail (so far). We still have sales of three or four per week on Amazon. That was the one book I think would have benefitted from revisions and editing. I wrote it the same way I did the first five non-fiction books. Straight through while working full time at my "real" job. But by the time I was wrapping up the novel I had also added this daily blog to the mix. 

Of all the things I have written the various posts on the blog (ex: The graying of traditional photography) are still my favorite pieces of writing. I could never do the blog and continue to work if I spent time and effort re-writing and revising the things I put together here. If I were an active and highly involved comment moderator the output of the blog would be much less in number and each post much briefer. My moderation process is binary: piss me off or put up misinformation and your comment is gone with no recourse and no discussion. If it doesn't attack me too harshly and adds to the overall piece? Then it stays. So simple and so quick. 

So, my hints for writers who want to produce salable material about photography is to:

Write fast. We are no longer making objects we are making consumables. 

Know your subject matter in its deepest and most profound detail and your writing about it will be informed and natural. 

Write a comprehensive outline for each book and stick to the outline. You'll never have to revise if you put enough work and thought into the outline. Why do the work twice?

Resist at all cost being "cute" with words or harkening back to the cadence and usage of the language you read back twenty, thirty or fifty years ago. "Twas" a time, verily, when good folk had a lot more time on their hands and an appreciation for even the most affected regional dialects. We should be writing for a universal audience now.  Not our frat brothers from Ivy League U. English departments. Ah, would I but have the leather elbow patches even now....twer it ever so..."Had I but world enough and time this coyness lady were no crime but over my shoulder I do hear time’s  winged chariot drawing near...." Andrew Marvell.

When writing non-fiction books set a time every morning and evening to write and have the attitude that "this is a job to get done" not an art form with which to amuse myself and a small, small coterie of readers. Unless of course your idea of a thriving market is the sale of several hundred copies. 

When writing a blog don't cross over the line between being a knowledgeable expert and dabbling in self-pity. It's never pretty. I've had shitty years but you haven't read about them.  

If you are writing a blog it's good to write about the thing you advertise. In Texas old football coaches always used to say, "Dance with them as brung ya." If you want to write a blog about photography it's pretty critical to actually touch on photography regularly. Nothing wrong with an off topic here and there but if the off topics out pace the on topics readers will notice and migrate.

Endless revisions are for trust-funders and artistes with no deadlines. Re-writes are for unfocused writers who didn't do their outlines. Writing poetry for fun? Take all the time you think you need.

The more you write and the faster you write the more authentic your writing voice sounds. I want my material to sound like you're listening to me talk in "human" while you are reading it. It shouldn't sound like Milton or Flaubert. It shouldn't have references that are so oblique they require a constant trip through Google. Just two guys talking. That's all I've ever aspired to. 

How to make money by writing? Hmmm. Get writing and producing today and do it non-stop. We have some famous writer here as a frequent reader who writes great mysteries. I counted 34 (THIRTY FOUR!!!!) published (and popular) novels resident on Amazon.com. I'm pretty sure that if he revises he does so very, very expediently. 

Think hard. Write fast. Know when to stop and move on. When you finish the book/blog/play/script you are writing today start the next one tomorrow. Only write about what you know. Really know. 

Well. I sat down to write this at 2 pm and now it's 3:30 pm and it's time to move on to the next project. Just wanted to outline how I think about writing and give my credentials to back up some of my opinions. (Socially correct disclaimer): But really, everyone sees art differently

Picasso....90,000 pieces of art. That guy knew how to commit to a piece without hesitation or regret.
 


Fun with motors. A fun system for photographing industrial stuff.

Large, high tech, electric motor.

I wrote a longish post over the weekend and haven't felt like writing again until today. But I'm not blaming "writer's block" because I've had so many other things to take care of this week. And the week is going by so fast. I wrapped up post production on a month long project to photograph 50 portrait sessions for a national accounting firm. That took some time. Just getting everyones' files to them took the better part of a morning. But the sense of closure when the last files winged their way to the recipient made me very happy. I'm always waiting for second shoes to drop... part of having an anxious nature.

The week also started with a bout of PhotoShop retouching for a non-profit called, Texas Appleseed. I learned that one can work on a portrait in Photoshop and then go into filters and output the file to a plug-in of Luminar, then use Luminar to do a really nice skin tone automated retouching (with available over ride controls) and even use a slider for reduce "shine." I'd pull files in, do some "A.I" retouching and bring the files back into PhotoShop to finish them up and do the things that might require advanced selections and different blending layers. It's constantly fun to learn new ways to do things as well but quicker and easier than before. 

We had a fun job on Monday. One of my favorite creative directors booked me to go shoot motors at a company that makes very advanced, industrial electric motors. I'd worked on the same account about a year ago and was delighted to hear that the client specifically requested me for this week's project. Apparently I have an affinity for shiny objects. 

So, on Monday I swam, spent the morning in meetings and doing paper work, and then I packed up a very streamlined kit and headed up to neighboring, Round Rock, Texas to do the photos. The traffic is back and I've started to depend more on time estimates given to me by map applications on my phone rather than just relying on my memory of how long it used to take to get anywhere. I walked in the front door at 12:30 pm, right on time. I put on my face mask, dragged in the cart full of fun stuff and immediately got to work setting up my two lights. 

Just for grins I decided to leave the LED lights at home and go somewhat old school. This is the first assignment I've done completely with electronic flash in a while. I decided that with the right attitude and the right camera and lens combination there was nothing I couldn't do with two battery powered flashes. My choice on Monday was to use two of the Godox AD200  portable flashes. These are compact units that run off large, rechargeable batteries. They put out a good quantity of light and also offer a bunch of different "flash head" options; from the round head you see in the photo below to a more conventional rectangular head and even a bare bulb tube. The round head and the rectangular heads feature, in addition to their own dedicated flash tubes, LED modeling lights that can be dimmed or ramped up. The LED modeling lights wouldn't compete with the bigger modeling lights found in A/C powered units but they are nice to have.

I put one flash in a collapsible soft box and the other I set up with a 60 inch, white umbrella. I angled the lights for the best effect on the products and then put one light about one stop lower than the other to provide a modicum of modeling across the various product faces. I was pleased with the way they looked. 

Most of the time I'm picking cameras and lenses based on how well they shoot with the lens wide open or with the camera and lens handheld. But when shooting product you'd be a little nuts not to use a tripod and also pick a lens that gives you some compositional flexibility and, in this case, performs well at smaller apertures, in defiance of diffraction. A much feared but, in reality, mostly mild side effect of stopping down. 

The selection of camera was based on what the client/agency was going to need as finished files. They were very happy with the idea of 24 megapixels so my choice was between the Panasonic S5 and one of the Leica SLs. I went with the SL because I knew I wanted to use the big and beefy Leica 24-90mm lens and wanted to take advantage of the Arca Swiss mount L plate I have attached to the SL. The plate prevents the camera from twisting on the tripod head when I need to shoot in a vertical orientation and the SL seemed like a good overall size match for the big and heavy lens. In fact it was. 

It's important to find one control in the camera menu to make shooting with flash easier. There is a menu item that allows for auto exposure with all modes (PSAM) and one that does all but the M mode. It's like turning off constant preview for the M setting. Turned on it acts like an OVF camera, the image may be bright and sassy in the EVF but it's that way even if you're two stops under exposed. This is great when working with flash because you can see to compose and focus then chimp the review to confirm correct exposure. If it's turned off you might be focusing on a  very dim finder image. No fun.

Once I had the camera set up correctly I dived straight down to f14 -- f16 in order to get enough depth of field to cover each product. I have a photographer friend in Switzerland who does tons of still-life images with Leica cameras and he's tested a wide range of lenses to see which  ones perform well when stopped down into diffraction territory. The Leica 24-90mm is his "go-to" lens for subjects that require the flexibility of a zoom and the "bite" of a good prime lens. That was my selection as well. 

I stuck mostly with f16 and used the controls on a Godox X1 T radio trigger to fine tune the power output from the flashes to get to an optimum exposure setting. The main and fill flashes were used at 1/2 and 1/4 power respectively. We shot a handful of products but needed to catch about six angles per product. The motors are big and heavy. The weight of the one in the top photo is easily 150 lbs. Some are bigger. 

Since the products weren't moving fast recycle time was inconsequential. The AD200 units, when used at 1/2 power can cycle at about 1 flash per second... for a while. They are well vented but not fan-cooled. I only needed two shots per angle. I could have gotten away with one shot per angle but why tempt fate? I was doing a two shot bracket at the "suggested" exposure and also one half stop under. Easy to pump up exposure in post but much harder to pull down overexposure. 

The project wrapped up in a couple of hours and I headed back to Austin to download and do post production. The agency discovered that some of the units we needed to photograph were a bit shop worn in places, with nicks, scratches and tape residue so they asked if I could retouch the most important four images right away. No problem. I love cosmetic problem solving. Any excuse to use the pen tool to create complex selections. 

It was a clean project with a start, a middle and a defined end point. Just the way I generally like projects. I hate stuff that drags on, changes, and drags on some more. 

The AD200 flash units are a far cry from the giant strobe boxes we used in the days of steam powered cameras with their rolls of hand-coated glass plates. A couple of the AD200s in a camera bag is an awesome and relatively powerful kit. You might remember that I used them extensively on a project that spread over a couple months back in 2018. The flashes stood up well in the oppressive heat of the Florida Everglades and then equally well in a mountain top sleet storm in rural Virginia. One unit finally bit the dust when it careened from the top of a ten foot light stand in a sudden wind gust. Ten feet down to concrete with all the mean-ness gravity could muster was too much for the plastic rear panel. That dead flash has since been replaced by a newer AD200 Pro which, for all intents and purposes is the same as the original. The new and old units work well together, share the same batteries and remotes and the same family of accessories. 

I think they are pretty cool. 

An AD200 (original) sunning itself on the window sill.

Gotta run for now. Having a Tex-Mex lunch with the creative director from the wine project. I wonder what he'll come up with this time?

Vacation is looming. B. is in charge of overall planning and logistics. She's much more detail and research oriented than I. 

 Added: Here is how the agency actually used the photos: https://www.infinitumelectric.com

(OMG, writing about current photography trends from the perspective of someone who does it for an actual living. Who would have thought?).