The Pitfalls of “Absolutes”
With WPPI around the corner, it seemed like an appropriate time to write up a quick article and ask all of the photographers out there to take a step back from shooting, technique, artistry and anything else for just a moment to talk a little bit about what we call “absolutes.”
Most of us, at some point in time in our careers (regardless of whatever that career may be), will fall into the trap of believing in absolutes. What are absolutes exactly? Absolutes are preconceptions or beliefs that there is only one way of accomplishing a task, regardless of what that task may be.
I don’t know why it happens, nor do I know when it happens, but I know that it does happen, and it happens often. At some point, we start believing that there is only one correct way of vacuuming the floor, reaching our career goals, achieving an A-grade in a class or even driving our cars… well, actually, there really isn’t more than one correct way of driving your car. But, that is neither here nor there, I think you all get my point.
When it comes to photography, we photographers who believe in self expression and creativity fall into this trap just as often if not more than others. Which, in my honest opinion is quite ironic given how we are constantly trying to seek out new methods of self expression.
At WPPI, each of you attendees are going to be virtually bombarded with education. Often times, you will even here things like, “if you aren’t doing (fill in your favorite statement here) then you are not doing it right or you are not a professional.” While there may be some level of truth to certain absolute statements, they always need to be taken with a grain of salt. If you have been doing your thing, and you have been successful at what you are doing, don’t let someone else convince you otherwise.
I remember at a WPPI lecture back in 2008, I heard a speaker in a serious tone state, “If you aren’t shooting with a light meter, you are not a professional photographer.” Immediately, I tuned out the rest of his lecture as I was hung up on that simple, yet completely flawed statement. I mean, how many of us professional photographers are completely comfortable with using our in-camera metering? I think the vast majority of us, including many of the greats such as Dennis Reggie, Joe Buissink, Jessica Claire, Jasmine Star, Mike Colon, and many more don’t walk around with light meters in their hands.
However, this photographer truly believed that his statement was accurate and without flaw. He wasn’t trying to be mean, or sound condescending, he was simply caught up in one of his own absolute preconceptions.
The problem with absolutes and any other strong preconceptions is that we carry around in our minds and they restrict us from learning and growing as photographers. If you go around thinking you need a light meter to properly shoot any scene, then how many potentially great shots would this absolute prevent you from capturing? If you insist on always using natural light only, then you are going to miss out on truly learning lighting and how to create amazing shots from nothing, a la Jerry Ghionis.
Truth is, often times these absolutes and pre-conceptions are typically defensive stances that we take to prevent ourselves from having to step outside of our comfort zones.
Here are some other absolutes or pre-conceptions that I have heard throughout my career as a photographer, and my opinions about them:
1. The only time of day to shoot outdoors is 30 minutes prior to and after sunrise/sunset – Truth, if you live in the same world we do (regardless, please say you do), only 1 hour in a 24 hour day falls within the “golden hour of photography.” Not to mention, if you live in LA during half the year this golden hour is during our golden hour of hellish traffic. So naturally, most of our shots will be outside this one hour window. I love shooting with direct harsh sunlight, and you can learn to love it too. A lot can be done with that type of lighting if done correctly. Each one of the shots below was shot at some other time well outside of the golden hour.
First two shots were taken in open direct sunlight.
Shot in semi-open indoor locations using diffused light from mid-day sun.
2. Using artificial light (flashes, video lights, etc) in a scene isn’t as good as using natural light - Truth, artificial light is not any better or worse than natural light, but rather it is different. Artificial light, when used properly can create amazing effects that you can never achieve otherwise.
2 Flashes used plus sun to achieve a 3 light effect.
2 Flashes with a dragged shutter.
2 Flashes used.
3. If you don’t know how to use off camera lighting, you can’t take great shots - Truth, just because you have and know how to use the crazy lighting setups doesn’t mean you have to! An images subject and statement of emotion is far greater than any composition or technical effect. Look at the 100 most influential photographs of the last century, how many of them were shots with setup lighting and perfect compositions? We love natural light, and we don’t miss an opportunity to use it. Check out some of our natural light shots below:
4. Professional imagery always follows strict composition rules - Truth, some of the best and most interesting images break every rule possible. Check out some of the shots below for some of our examples.
This shot below breaks a lot of rules, by placing a blurred out subject in front of the frame in a dominant position over the actual focused subjects. However, it was intentionally done to create a strong “voyeuristic” sense to this faux candid shot.
90% sky, 10% ground, 100% dramatic.
Cut subject just above the waste, typically a no-no, but it works as it brings focus to the cool back-lit-lighting effects in the top of the frame.
5. You must have a $3,000 professional camera body with $15,000 worth of glass and accessories to shoot professional images – Truth, give me a Rebel, a 50mm and I would feel just fine delivering a professional product to our clients. Does it help having a 5D Mark II+ (or D700+) camera with L lenses, absolutely. But, I will take lighting, composition and technical expertise over hardware any day.
6. Wedding photographers are not “true” photographers – Truth, a truly good wedding photographer needs to be a master of virtually every type of photography. Detail shots, venue shots, head shots, portraits, family portraits, etc; each of these areas of photography has it’s own set of rules and techniques, each of which a wedding photographer must master to truly be great at his/her craft.
7. I am strictly a photojournalist, posing is unnatural - Truth, posing and setting up your shots can create very natural faux journalistic moments. It will all depend on your ability as a photographer to help setup and pose those shots in order to create those journalistic reenactments. Check out some of our posed faux journalistic work below.
8. My work isn’t yet worth $5,000 or $10,000 per wedding – Truth, you are right. Yup, if you think your work isn’t worth $3,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 then it isn’t. Who in their right mind would pay you that much when you don’t believe that you are worth that much yourself? You define your image and you set your value. If there is uniqueness, artistry, quality and value behind your product, people will make the investment, regardless of the price.
9. Wedding photography is an easy part time job with a full time income – Truth, wedding photography is a full time + time + time job with the potential for a full time income only after several years of hard work and dedication. Don’t forget that being a photographer, regardless of what type of photographer, requires you to also handle sales, accounting, management, legal, admin and every other possible area that comes along with being a business owner. Expect 60+ hour work weeks for your first few years while earning far less than you would at a typical job. But, don’t get me wrong, it is rewarding, and there is awesome potential.
10. It takes a gorgeous venue to get gorgeous shots - OK, there is no doubt that having a gorgeous venue will give you gorgeous shots, we all know that. And, I’m not going to post pictures here just in case a client with what we would call a “less than gorgeous” venue happens to stumble across their shot in here. However, let me just say this, there is beauty in every single venue that we have shot. It may not be in the wide angle shot that shows the entire venue along with its pasty taupe walls and drab carpet, but it is there somewhere. I have never been to a single wedding where there hasn’t been beauty in at least the details. Find the angles and the details that bring out the beauty in each location, and your clients will love you for it.
There are so many pitfalls out there, this is just a short list of some of the more common ones that we have heard, or hopped into ourselves. Hopefully you will come away from this article realizing that absolutes can only restrict your potential and growth. When it comes to photography, there are truly an unlimited number of ways to come up with a truly unique and professional product. Find the method that fits you, and allow yourself to grow outside of it when it becomes necessary.
Please share your opinions, beliefs and thoughts about this topic below by commenting.