The process of making photographs to illustrate a book. And then repurposing them for other use.


Jana. Illustration from book 5...

It's an interesting process to make a non-fiction book about some aspect of photography and having as your primary audience, other photographers. I think the general public has the idea that writing "how-to" photography books is a very structured and publisher-directed undertaking in which the writer and the photographer (if they are not one and the same) are working to an exacting template from the publishing company. The presumption is that the writer is given a long and detailed outline to follow while the photographer, from the outset, is given a very concise and detailed shot list to fulfill. 

In my experience of writing and providing all the photographic content for five such books I've found that this is not the case at all. All five of my projects were more or less self-directed, after getting approval of a very brief, two page outline, and an advance check from the publishing company.

Having always been interested in book writing as a career I had the illusion that I would experience the publishing industry as it's represented in movies and on television shows. I'd submit detailed outlines and perhaps the first few, tentative chapters, and then the publisher's editor would invite me up to NYC for some face to face lunch meetings at which we'd drink martinis, eat fabulous steaks, and I'd get gentle instruction and direction that would improve the quality of my books by leaps and bounds. I imagined that as the process went on the editor and I would engage in a respectful push and shove over my flippant use of grammar or her insistence on including material I thought to be too cliché or remedial. 

Judging from the "writer's journey" that I saw in movies we'd have one or two major disagreements and then we (myself and the editor) would have some sort of shared epiphany and find a third way of proceeding that would exceed our wildest hopes and expectations. Of course, absolutely none of this happened on any of the five books.

After a very successful first book the publisher's people would query me about what I might want to do for a second book. I would think hard over the course of one swim practice and decide on subject I thought I could cover well and I'd send over a two page outline and maybe a paragraph or two describing the project in a hopeful and flowery way. 

The publisher would respond "yes" or "no" and then, if yes, I'd get a contract to sign which would revisit their requirements. Which were always very loose. Like: "Between 25,000 to 50,000 words. No longer!" And, "should be illustrated with between 100 and 150 photographs, lighting diagrams or other visual content." Not a word about style or content of the images but the presumption that the photographs and captions should reinforce the written words on the pages.

When I started on the first book I called the editor early on to ask if they wanted sample chapter and if they wanted to make sure we were aligned on a single purpose. They politely told me that the book was my own project and they were only interested in "opening the envelope and assessing the book" when I had totally completed the entire project; writing and photographs. At first it seemed rather scary but I soon realized that while being totally responsible for the content that also gave me the freedom to shoot whatever I wanted, cast whoever I wanted, and to shoot in whatever style I wanted to. 

My assistant, Amy, and I would discuss the chapter I was working on in the moment and we'd make a quick list of all the different images that we'd like to have on a wish list both for that chapter but also to have as a catalog/resource that would allow me to sprinkle images throughout the book to re-inforce ideas, fill space, etc. Then we'd look for models we wanted to work with. And that's how I found Jana (photo above) and ended up working with her for many photographs in the LED Lighting book. 

I saw her photo on one of the online model resources. She was a student at UT at the time. I sent her an e-mail outlining the project and asking if she would be interested in working on it in return for a daily modeling fee. She was interested and I suggested we do a test shoot on a convenient afternoon just to see if we were a good match to work together. She showed up with a friend in tow. A chaperone. 

She wanted to make sure this was a safe situation and not some sort of icky scam. That sure made sense to me. But I also made sure that we shot the first tests around downtown and in public just so both of us felt relaxed. We worked well together and I booked Jana to work with Amy and me for a few days in the studio and around the VSL compound. I really liked her energy and additionally booked her for the cover shot. 

It's important, for the happiness and efficiency of shoots with models, for the photographer to keep in mind the Boy Scout Promise: (from my own memory and then checked for accuracy at Wikipedia): 

The Scout Law: A scout is trustworthy, loyal, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

Which basically means: Tell everyone exactly what you are planning and why. Do exactly what you said. Keep everyone safe. Respect the talent. Pay the talent and crew on time. Keep your hands on the camera and off the models.

By following these basic precepts while working on book projects I have been able to establish good working relationships with talents going back over a decade. And I know who I can call on a commercial project and trust that they'll be perfect for the look and, at the same time, very professional. 

With appropriate model releases I am able to use the images we make for the books for other uses such as my portfolio, blog illustrations and on social media. It's a great resource for a working photographer.

Now, back to my new understanding of publishing. 

I really had no idea what to expect on the first project but I did know I had a deadline and I have never missed a deadline in my entire career. I fine-tuned the project several times which is way out of character for me as a writer. I know a number of people confess to love the revision process but I personally think revisioning is a sign of sloppy initial thinking and a meandering mind. When I got into the groove with the second through fifth books I wrote a good outline for myself and then wrote each one straight through. No pearl clutching on one chapter at a time.

But on that first one.... I had a deadline and no expectation that, after all my work, the publisher would even consider my book publishable. Or would they just shake their heads and ask for their advance back? 

I set May 25th of 2007 as my "drop dead" deadline day. That would give me two days to ship the final package of images, lighting diagrams, and the manuscript to the publisher via FedEx and still hit their stated deadline. I was getting more and more anxious as the 25th approached. Had all this been for naught? Would I be ridiculed and ultimately embarrassed? 

On the afternoon of the 25th I was frantically pulling all the pieces together and organizing the package for presentation to the editorial team. And, on that afternoon, I experienced the first panic attack of my life. I was sitting in front of the computer in my office trying desperately to rework a clumsy caption and I could feel the minutes ticking away. 

I started to feel a twinge in my chest, right on top of my sternum. My hands were shaky. And then my peripheral vision started to close in and I started seeing spots and stars cluttering my vision as well. I was in mortal fear that I was having a heart attack or a stroke...or both. I picked up my desk phone (yes, we still had landlines then...) and called B. She came out of the house to assess me and I insisted that we rush to the emergency room of the hospital, about two miles down the road. 

I walked into an empty emergency room waiting area and announced that I thought I might be having stroke. One nurse and two doctors came out to see what was going on with this middle-aged man in their waiting room. Before admitting me they did a series of tests. Physical tests. Like arm strength, walking with stability, and others that I just have blocked from memory. What the two doctors decided was, that for all appearances, this looked like a classic case of....a panic attack. We chatted, I told them about my "deadline peril" and they also called my own physician. They all agreed that it might be worthwhile to give me a Xanax tablet and have me stay put for observation. 

About thirty minutes later the medication kicked in, my panic receded and my symptoms resolved. B drove me back home and I silently thanked the ER crew for not going ahead and admitting me which would have resulted in a huge co-pay on my freelancer's healthcare insurance. I went home, tired from my first encounter with benzodiazepines, ashamed of my emotional weakness in the moment, and ready to wash my hands of the project. B helped me package everything up and we drove over to the FedEx office to ship the whole mess off. 

The deadline was two days hence and I waited and refreshed my FedEx page until I was able to see that the package had been delivered. I gave it a week or two and then I called the publisher to make sure that I'd hit their deadline and that they had everything they needed to publish the project. I was on pins and needles. I could feel that nervous energy rushing back.

They laughed a bit and told me that "yes" the package had come in and they'd put it in a stack and would get to it as soon as they could. Maybe a month or so? And I was shocked. "But what about the deadline?' I asked in disbelief. 

"Oh that. Well we give all the writers deadlines. Most people love the idea of writing a book but the vast majority of people that we send contracts to can never finish their projects and end up sending back their advances. Basically resigning. We just set the deadlines because the writers who do finish their projects are almost always late. Some by a couple weeks and some by much longer. In fact, I think you are one of the very few writers we have who has ever delivered exactly when we told them to." 

Later I had a discussion with one of the editors who let me know that for every ten contracts they send out one manuscript gets finished. It was unspoken but there was also the insinuation that not every manuscript that got submitted made it to the printers either.

Writers love to talk about revising and I presumed that once the book had been run through by the editors there would be lots of feedback, suggestions for revisions, etc. But most of the editing was just cleaning up my typos and zapping a few grammatical issues (which I still insist are more a difference in style than correct or incorrect).

The one thing I had no control over, really was the actual design of the book or, more importantly, the content of the cover. That's something publishers almost always hold on to. The idea being that cover art is part of the marketing package.

I liked writing books at that time. But the benefit down the road, for me, was the necessary introduction to the talents we worked with on the projects. Young people like Jana have gone on to prestigious careers in serious (non-modeling/non-photography) industries. But the library of images and the memories of collaborating with fine people are part of the rewards of doing any long term project. 

If I proposed yet another non-fiction book to a publisher about 95% of my motivation would be the imperative of finding and working once again with wonderfully talented and beautiful people. And maybe that's just the right way to approach the industry.

After my experiences with the first book, and after my publishing panic attack, the process became profoundly less scary; less daunting. Now I look at creating books as just another routine. A longer process than photography jobs but still, a manageable series of logical steps. Or, you could revise yourself to death. Better to mix the writing and the photography together so that when one becomes repetitive and drab you can switch hats and take a breather. 

Well. That's enough rambling for today.