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New Work: Crescent Bay Sunset

Sunset at Crescent Bay in Laguna Beach, CASunset at Crescent Bay, Laguna Beach, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Fuji Provia 100F, 30" at f/29 - 81C Warming Filter and 3-Stop Split ND
Click Image for Larger Version

Shooting large format at the beach is tough. The camera is slow, unwieldy, and once you lock down the shot, it's a royal pain to adjust anything. This makes using a tripod in the surf essentially impossible. As soon as the water rushes in around the legs, they start sinking, which messes up everything. Plus, it's not uncommon for exposures to be 10" or longer, which makes it really impossible to set up in sinking sand.

I tried to make some "snow shoes" for use at the beach to remedy this problem, but they don't work well enough. So instead, I either set up in the dry sand or if I want to be close to the water, I must find just the right cluster of rocks that will permit me to set up my tripod on them. And that's what I did here.

Shen-Hao HZX-45IIaFrom high up on my perch on some rocks at Crescent Beach in Laguna Beach, CA, I composed this image using my large format Shen-Hao HZX-45IIa 4x5 camera with a Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5 lens.

On my way to the beach, I envisioned a photo of the Pacific Ocean smoothed out into a gentle fog with the water's surface and wet sand reflecting the vibrant colors of a fiery sunset. I wanted some dark, nearly black rocks in the foreground to break up the reflection and, luckily for me, the sand level was low at the beach that day and the perfect rocks were perfectly exposed in the perfect location under a stable platform for my tripod. And the sky was nice enough to serve up the colors that night.

I metered the scene using my handheld spot meter, calculating an exposure of 15 seconds at f/29 on Fuji Provia 100F film. A 3-stop split neutral density filter allowed me to hold color in the sky and water surface and an 81C warming filter brought out the warm tones of the sunset exactly as I hoped. The 30-second exposure smoothed out the water and the wet sand picked up the reflections just as I envisioned.

I also tilted the lens forward a little bit while keeping the film vertical. Sounds weird, but on this type of camera, I can tilt the lens and film independently of each other so that they are no longer parallel as on a standard SLR camera. Why would I want to do this? Well when you tilt the lens forward but leave the film plane vertical, you basically tilt the entire plane of focus forward so that it better aligns with the earth stretching out in front of me.

So if you imagine on a traditional SLR camera, the plane of focus is always parallel to the lens and camera back, like photographing a wall straight on. But when I tilt the lens forward on this camera, the plane of focus starts to "lay down" in front of me, like a wall tipping away from me. This gives me a huge depth of field so that everything is tack sharp from foreground to background. This phenomenon is called the Scheimpflug principle and is a very valuable tool for controlling depth of field.

It doesn't happen often, but I love when all the elements come together perfectly like they did on this evening.

8 Tips for Hiring a Professional Photographer

Photographer For Hire Car Window Decal

I can't tell you how many times I've heard this story: Unsuspecting customer needs a photographer for their wedding/family photos/maternity photos. Customer goes to the web, finds a local photographer with a great website and a great portfolio. Customer hires photographer. Photographer sounds like he/she knows what he/she is doing. Photographer produces horrible photos. Customer is unhappy.

Ask anybody if they liked their wedding photographer. The answer is almost never "Yes! He was fantastic! We loved the photos!"

This is such a common story because we live in a weird age that is over-saturated with unskilled and inexperienced "professional" photographers that have access to the same web designers, logo makers, and advertising that a true, experience professional has. Both have flashy websites and advertise in the same places, so how can you sort out the pros who will deliver from the pros who barely know how to turn on their camera?

That's where I come in. In this post, I will give you 8 pointers on how to find a good professional photographer for your wedding, portraits, etc. Now keep in mind that I don't do "for hire" work anymore. I strictly teach photography and sell fine art prints. So I don't have a dog in this fight - I'm not trying to get you to hire me for your next engagement. And I have unique perspective on this because I talk to professional, aspiring professional, and amateur photographers all day, everyday. I know the red flags.

So let's get started!

1. Judge their work, not their marketing

We live in the golden age of marketing. Cheap, professional-looking advertising is available to anyone with the money. A photographer with 30 years experience looks no different to Google than one with 6 months experience. Anyone can take out an ad in a wedding magazine and anyone can get really high-quality glossy sample cards made up. Flashy business cards are inexpensive.

So marketing doesn't mean anything. Don't think a photographer is trustworthy just because they ranked first on Google or had the biggest ad in a magazine. There are so many photographers out there that are excellent at marketing, but horrible at delivering good photos under pressure. One referral is worth a thousand ads or website links, and testimonials from an unbiased website like Yelp are generally very indicative of what you can expect from the photographer in question.

And by the way, beware of photographers who plaster the rear window of their car with a big sticker advertising their photography business. No "real" professional wants or needs to do that. Great professionals who deliver the best quality have no problem getting clients. They are booked weeks or months out based purely on referrals. A big "Awesome Photographer for Hire" decal on the back of their SUV would only embarrass them.

2. Beware of heavy editing

Lots of Photoshop work and Lightroom plugins are often used by photographers to make up for a lame photo. They pass it off as a "style", but really it's because they can't get a good shot without the help of Adobe's software engineers. For a guy like me, I can see a heavily edited photo a mile away, but the average consumer doesn't have that trained eye. So how can you tell if they heavily manipulate their photos? Simple. Ask to see the unedited versions from a shoot compared to the edited versions. A photographer who is confident in what they do and who actually does use Photoshop to create a unique style - not to cover up shoddy mistakes - will gladly show you the unedited shots. If the photographer is too hesitant or straight up turns you down, just move on.

But don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with software editing, so long as you are okay with it and so long as it's used to enhance an already great photo, not fix a bad photo. The photographer's unedited shots should be tack sharp, well-composed, and capturing the right moment. Those things can't be fixed in Photoshop. It they then throw on a stylized vignette and smooth out some skin, that's fine so long as you like that style. But the key is that the unedited shots should be able to stand on their own as great photos.

3. 50 good photos isn't enough

That's great if the photographer has 50 excellent photos on their website, but that doesn't mean they'll deliver for your shoot. They could have taken 10,000 photos just to get those lucky 50. You need a photographer who delivers quality on every single shoot.

So ask to see more photos. Ask to see all of the final edits delivered to clients for their 3 most recent shoots. If they delivered a good crop of photos 3 shoots in a row, they'll probably do it again.

4. Anyone can get a flashy website

Flashy, template websites are available to anyone with $39.99 a month to spend on it. It's nice if the photographer has an inviting website that showcases their work nicely, but don't let that be any deciding factor in hiring them. Someone else is most likely designing the website for them anyway. What matters is their photos, not their website. Besides, most professionals with experience know that a website should be clean, easy to navigate, and not overly animated. Beginners like their websites to have lots of animated menus, background music, and other distracting crap that really just makes up for the mediocre photos.

5. A logo doesn't mean anything

You wouldn't believe how cheap and easy it is to get a professional logo made these days. You can hire some talented artist in Brazil for $100 to make up a top notch design for you. So don't be fooled by a logo. It doesn't mean anything. And truthfully, if I was hiring a photographer, I personally would shy away from anyone with a real fancy logo. Most experienced pros just use their name, maybe in a specific font, but minus the ornate designs and cutesy graphics. But again, don't get me wrong. A flashy logo isn't a definite red flag that the photographer is an amateur. There are plenty of very experienced, talented pros with ornate logos. But just don't let it play a factor in hiring them.

And by the way, I've said it before and I'll say it again, if aspiring professional photographers spent as much time honing their craft as they do designing their logo and shopping for equipment, we'd be surrounded by talented photographers. 

6. Equipment doesn't mean anything

A professional needs to have the necessary equipment to deliver a product, but really, it's not as vital as you think. A DSLR from any manufacturer along with a couple lenses is enough. It doesn't matter if they have the latest Canon 5D Mark Whatever or if they have that one lens that all portrait photographers must have. In fact, a true professional is running a business, not a hobby supported by a day job. So a true professional doesn't look forward to spending $3500 on a new camera that won't really make them a better photographer. It's an expense and it means less money to pay the mortgage, insurance, etc. Unless this new piece of equipment will actually make them more money, then it doesn't make sense to buy it - that's how a business person thinks and that's how a real pro thinks.

Also, if the photographer has all of their equipment proudly listed on their website, that's a red flag to me. Newbies like to show off to the world what equipment they use. Believe me, I know. I used to have a section on my website devoted to my equipment. It was when I was 15. But experienced pros care more about showcasing their work, pleasing clients, and keeping the business profitable. They know it's not about the equipment and, really, they want people hiring them on the merits of their photos, not for the price-tag of their equipment. They'll only bring up their equipment if you push them on the matter.

7. Experience is most important

New photographers are like new drivers - they may know how to operate the equipment, but they get distracted easily and make a lot of mistakes. Experience is the only thing that can train that out of a person. When it comes to a wedding, the photographer has to be 110% in the moment without a single ounce of energy spent trying to remember what f-stop will give them a faster shutter speed. They need to be calm, collected, and they have to be able to anticipate important moments before they happen. Newbies can't do that. They are too caught up in the settings on their camera and they simply haven't attended enough weddings to know where to point the lens.

I personally wouldn't hire a photographer with less than 5 years experience. So ask your photographer how long they have been shooting. Ask them when they first picked up an SLR camera. Ask them if they shot film previously. Ask them how long ago they opened their business and whether or not they have a business license (they should). And expect them to add 6 months to a year to their answers.

8. You usually get what you pay for (but not always)

High prices don't mean they are good or that they will deliver, but generally speaking, only photographers who know they can deliver will confidently request high prices. Really good professionals have to raise their prices again and again because their schedule is filling up too far out. And they'll have no problems asking for those high prices. They know they are worth it and they know you will be happy with the results. If they seem uneasy about their fees, then they are uneasy about their skills.

And if you are able to talk them down, don't hire them. Professionals with experience and those who aren't begging for clients aren't willing to budge much on their pricing. They might throw in some prints for you, but they won't lower their service prices very much if at all. In fact, they'll usually try to get rid of people who talk them down. They have clients lining up around the block and don't have time to negotiate. Might sound arrogant, but it's not. It's literally that they don't have time to negotiate with you because they have other clients willing to pay the stated rate and they are booked solid for weeks or months.

 

So there you go. 8 tips to help you hire a professional photographer. Just remember that these aren't hard, fast rules, but good guidelines. Feel the photographer out. You can tell when someone knows what they're doing and when they don't. Trust your instinct and trust referrals.

New Work: Aliso/Woods Canyons in B&W

Old Fence in Aliso/Woods Canyons - Orange County, CA Click any photo for a larger view

As recounted in my post "New Work: Aliso/Woods Canyons in Fog", I recently spent some time photographing nearby Aliso & Woods Canyons Wilderness Park in the fog. While my medium format Mamiya RZ67 camera was loaded with color transparency film, I also carried my 35mm Canon EOS-1v loaded up with Ilford Delta 100 black and white film.

I debated back and forth whether to shoot B&W on my medium format because there are few things that look better in B&W than fog. It has that great, old-timey, moody feel that Hollywood epics always bank on. But then again the color of that morning light! Ah, what a tough decision. Luckily I decided to torture my spine by carrying both systems with me.

I carried only one lens for each camera - a 50mm wide-angle for my medium format and a mid-range 24-105mm zoom for my Canon. You know it's funny, when I used to carry only my digital SLR, I couldn't leave the house with less than 3 lenses. But now I just had a single mid-range zoom for my camera. Strangely enough, I didn't feel held back or limited at all. Sometimes the only wide angle lens you need is just taking 3 steps back.

With my B&W shots, I first concentrated on the muted tones created by the fog near the old fence, but then worked my way up to some high-contrast shots with dew drops on a spiderweb and light streaming through an old oak tree.

I'm currently going through a love affair with all the stately oak trees around here in Orange County. I never fully appreciated their size, age, and aesthetics until now. I guess it took some B&W film to open my eyes to their beauty. Expect more photos of these wonderful organisms in the near future - color and B&W.

Foggy morning in Aliso/Woods Canyons Wilderness Park - Orange County, CA
Foggy morning in Aliso/Woods Canyons Wilderness Park - Orange County, CA

Dew on spiderweb in Aliso/Woods Canyons Wilderness Park - Orange County, CA
Oak Tree in Aliso/Woods Canyons Wilderness Park - Orange County, CA