tongue in cheek

Grumpy old photographers’ charter

I do a lot of seminar and teaching work these days and one of my most popular presentations is about professionalism. The talk is aimed at new entrants to the profession but it seems to go down well with photographers who have been around a while as well. I have even delivered the same talk to a group of lawyers because actually replacing the word ‘photographer’ with ‘lawyer’ brings a lot of the meaning around to the central idea that, in many ways, professionalism is the same no matter what you do for a living.

©Neil Turner. March 2009, Bournemouth Beach

The final part of the talk is a bit of a dig at myself and my peers. Those of us who have been in the job for a long time and who might just be getting a little complacent about things. I call this part of the talk “The five worst habits of those of us who should know better”:

1. Harking back to a golden age that may, or may not, have existed

It’s a simple idea really – we all look back with slightly misty eyes at the time a few years ago when things were good and before something new came along to spoil everything. Take your pick from the use of colour in newspapers, the whole move to digital, the adoption of multimedia by newspaper websites and several other developments in the industry. The truth is that when I was just starting out there were a few photographers who complained about the arrival of 35mm film and the loss of their beloved Rolleiflex cameras and even one or two who bemoaned the passing of half plate cameras and dark slides with sheet film. I reckon that every photographer has a ‘golden age’ that they look back at and that you can calculate when that was for each of us using a simple formula which compares how long the photographer has been working with when they got their first big front page and divide it all by the first major change in the industry that they went through. There never was a true golden age was there?

2. Forgetting why we came into the job in the first place

Easy to do this… most of us had a desire to tell stories, create arresting and beautiful pictures and to make the world a better place with our photography. Very few of us did it for the money, not many of us did it so that we could play with ever more expensive toys and only a tiny number came into it so that they could work unsocial hours and have to chase clients for money the whole time. If you take a step back and think about your original motivation and it isn’t there any more you really need to make your mind up about whether this is still the business that you want to be in. The older I get, the more I feel the need to shoot pictures that I want to shoot just to keep myself sane and sharp.

3. Failing to keep up with new business practices

“I’ve always done it that way, why should I change now?” is a common lament from photographers who are in trouble of getting it wrong. From the way you buy and use equipment to the way you store your archive and from the way you word your invoices to the way you put your portfolio together should be the subjects of constant review and possible change. Technology affects every single aspect of who we are and what we do and anyone who decides to stop keeping themselves up-to-date with what is happening is consigning themselves to a parallel dimension where they may get some work but where that might  be a temporary state on the road to going out of business.

4. Throwing money and effort into the latest thing

Exactly the opposite of the last problem really. Keeping abreast of developments and knowing where the market is a good idea whereas automatically jumping on every new idea, fad or fashion is not. So many new developments turn out to be ideas that don’t stand the test of time and too many of us have invested too much time and money chasing them. The worst way to do this is to assume that somebody younger and hipper than you automatically knows what to do – that, in my experience, is rarely the case. There’s always a middle-aged geek who you can ask…

5. Letting professionalism slip

Another thing that is far too easy to do. I know that I’ve done it – mainly through over-confidence. You have to remember the maxim that “professionalism is everything we do, everything we say and everything we produce” in our working lives. You can get too close to clients, you can cut corners in your workflow and you can rely too much on automated systems. This is far from a full list but it illustrates the potential pitfalls when it comes to losing our professional edge.

Being a professional photographer is a fulfilling and interesting way to make a living but we all need to remember that it is a profession and not a lucrative hobby. I’ve been wracking my brains to come up with a clever and punchy pay-off line for this blog post but I’ve struggled. I’ll just content myself with some advice: when things are feeling tough and not all all like the ‘old days’ just remember the five worst habits of those of us who should know better and if that doesn’t help… get some help!

Chicken or egg? Workflow or mess…

Which came first… the Chicken or the egg, digital imaging or workflow?

One of the rather brilliant side effects of teaching is that you had to look very long and hard at your own practice to make sure that it will stand up to the examination of younger and more eager minds. I have taught workflow on and off for a few years now and I have come to the conclusion that all photographers should get theirs checked every once in a while to make sure that they haven’t fallen into the bad habits trap.

It doesn’t take much time and going through what you do and why you do it with an experienced teacher of these things is a great idea. I have also discovered how useful having a go at a proper edit of someone else’s pictures can be. Photographers are rarely their own best editors and it is a brilliant exercise to do an edit of a job where you give no attention to including pictures just because were hard to take or to pictures that you really like but don’t help tell the story. Captioning should also be part of that exercise because we all make assumptions when we do our IPTC that a disinterested party wouldn’t make. All in all, I thoroughly recommend these exercises to you.

In a rather tongue-in-cheek reference to the Alcoholics Anonymous “Twelve Step Plan” to beat addiction, I developed the photographers 12 step plan to get a good, dependable and repeatable workflow. It doesn’t matter that you can cut twelve steps down to seven or eight if you need to work fast and it really doesn’t matter that step twelve was “relax and put your feet up” anyway. What actually matters is that you have a tried and tested way of getting your valuable pictures from the camera to the client and back them up without making silly mistakes that cost you time, image quality and (worst of all) money.

For years I have been “quoting” the Hippocratic oath that Doctors and other medical folks take when they take up their calling. I have put “quoting” in inverted commas because it turns out that the phrase I have always used isn’t part of the oath at all – it’s just a line from a film!

Anyway I’ve been saying this; “First, do no harm”. It works for medicine and it certainly works for photographer workflows because the idea is that you never damage the original file – always working on a copy. Of course, with Jpegs that have had anything more than very light compression applied that means that you have already sacrificed some quality – but I don’t want to go down the whole RAW Vs Jpeg road again.

At some point in the future I will publish an updated version of the photographer’s 12 step plan with a step-by-step explanation of how my own workflow works but for now I wanted to just outline it. Remember that this can be edited down so that you have fewer steps if needs be:

  1. INGEST/IMPORT – get the images and any supporting files from the camera into the computer. Applications designed to ingest or import files look inside folders and sub-­folders on the memory card in a way that you might not be able to do by simply copying files from the card yourself. It’s important to note that this is one of the easier steps to cut out if you are in a real hurry.
  2. FIRST EDIT – make an initial selection of the images that you are interested in. At this stage you can dispense with very badly exposed frames, pictures where the focus has been missed, where important people have their eyes closed or pictures that are just not very good.
  3. COPY – move a copy of the selected images to a new folder.
  4. RENAME – give the selected pictures a new name. Some clients will have a formula that they want you to follow but otherwise try using a simple word identifier, followed by a six‐digit date and then a sequence number. All good software has the ability to batch rename and sequentially number files. A set of portraits of Tony Blair shot on the 3rd of April 2011 might be blair-­110403-­001 through to blair-­110403-­204. The exact formula that you pick isn’t as important as having one that works for you. The filenames that the camera assigns are not good enough and not unique enough for professional use.
  5. CAPTION – using the IPTC metadata fields to add information about what is in the picture, when and where it was taken and by whom it was taken. This is the best way to insure that your pictures can be found again – all image archiving and storage systems work with metadata.
  6. SECOND EDIT – narrowing the selection of images down to those that will make it into the final edit or the selection that will be delivered to the client.
  7. CONVERT – taking the RAW images from the final edit, making adjustment to colour, exposure, brightness, contrast etc using a RAW converter and then saving the toned images to the required file format.
  8. RETOUCH – opening the images into Adobe Photoshop or a similar application to remove dust spots, make subtle (but ethical) changes that cannot be made in the RAW converter, which, these days, are very few.
  9. SAVE – the final stage before sending to the client is to save the edit in the format that the client requires either JPEG or TIFF are most likely.
  10. DELIVER – most images these days are delivered using the internet. FTP is the most efficient but you may also be asked to email pictures, create web galleries, upload to third party viewing sites or simply burn everything to a disc and put them in the post.
  11. ARCHIVE – make sure that you back up copies of everything that you may need again. External hard drives, cloud storage systems and op?cal discs are the most common options. Multiple back ups are the best way to avoid losing your images due to the ageing of materials or the failure of drives.
  12. RELAX – that’s the end of the process!