Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Profoto Blog Series: 14 Steps to Improve Your Photography

Here is my 3rd article in the Profoto blog series. Enjoy~


If you have been shooting for a while, whether as a professional photographer or a hobbyist, how do you improve? This is one of the questions I am often asked when a photographer writes to me. With the last two articles, I covered commercial and personal photoshoot productions. For this one I want to turn things inward a little, and talk about how to improve ourselves and better our photography.



So, without further ado, here are my 14 steps to improve your photography!

 



1. Never Be Satisfied

Motherland Chronicles #4 - The Waiting

To start off, I want to focus a little on humility. If you want to get better, you must know that there is room for you to improve and open yourself to criticisms.

If you are already satisfied with yourself, then you lack the hunger that will push you to get better.

Self-assess your weaknesses and keep a list of things you want to improve. Work on them all the time.


2. Build a Feedback Group


Build a trusted circle of friends with good eyes and tastes. Get their opinions and discuss your work on a regular basis.

You can pose specific questions such as, “How can I improve this composition?” or “Which one do you prefer between crop A and crop B, why?” Or you can ask broader questions about your body of work such as, “What do you think is missing from my work?” or “What do you think will make my pictures better?”

Jot down the feedback and distill them into key points. There will be hits and misses of course, because people are different from one another. But these fresh perspectives will help you see things anew, and cover any points you may have missed out on from your personal assessments.


3. Set Goals

Motherland Chronicles #23 - Dive

With the list from your feedback sessions, prioritize the points you want to work on and follow the steps below.

You can choose something as broad as simply trying new things, or as specific as achieving a particular style or lighting.

The choice is often situational, based on the phase you’re going through with your photography and what you want from it.

Specific things can be great for technical improvements, but broader ideas are great for explorations and evolving your style. Either way, be focused once you’ve made the choice, and don’t be afraid to fail.


4. Build a Reference Library


With a defined goal to work towards, start building a reference library pertaining to your topic of choice. Organize it however you like and save anything of interest, not just pictures. These could be ideas you’ve had, links, illustrations, and even reading lists, jot those down too.

If you already have an existing library, store the new materials separately. In this way, you can reference back to them easily.


5. Read


Being visual people, many of us aren’t natural readers. But there is a limit to how much a person can learn by consuming images alone.

So read to enrich your knowledge and imagination, to understand the backgrounds of your interests and stories of others.

Take your time finding topics that are interesting to you. Look up everything from art history to theories, to biographies, interviews, and monographs.

Don’t just limit yourself to photography either. Anything remotely related to what you like can be an eye-opener and inspirational.

For example, if you want to shoot fashion, you should read up all about the history of clothing and fashion, the industry, designers past and present; the fabrics, trends and seasons. You should know industry terms, and about hair and makeup and style.

A photographer’s job isn’t just to press a button. You are the artist, the director. You have to know your subjects and have your own perspectives in order to take pictures that can express your point of view.


6. Travel

From top left: Paris, Venice, Isle of Skye, Kyoto

Beyond reading, there are many things that need real-life immersion for us to experience and understand.

Cultures can change significantly from city to city. From the art in galleries and museums, to the landscapes of nature and cities.

Take a few pictures for reference, but don’t just view the world through your viewfinder. Immerse yourself and let the vibe of what you have seen and felt inspire you, stay with you.

Travel is one of the best ways to be inspired, I highly recommend it!


7. Attend Workshops

Jon Foster Workshop

Workshops are great places to meet people you like and learn about their perspectives and approaches.

You don’t have to adopt the speaker’s way of working or thinking step by step, but go there to learn how something works for someone else, and how you may similarly adopt it for your own work and life.

It’s also a great way to make friends and ask questions, so prepare some good, thoughtful questions beforehand, it’s one of the greatest benefits of in-person interactions.

However, remember that this is but a way of learning. You will not emerge suddenly all-knowing or instantly better. Even the best classes aren’t for everyone, so always keep an open mind.


8. Get a Notebook

Ogami Stone Paper Notebook

With all these newly-acquired knowledge and inspirations, it’s time to move on to the practical part! But first: get a notebook.

You are going to try a lot of new things from this point on, and having a notebook will be handy for brainstorming ideas, jotting down things you want to attempt, and recording any new light setups you will be experimenting with. You could take notes on your phone or laptop too, but it’s just not quite the same as scribbling notes and lighting diagrams with pen and paper.


9. Try New Themes and Subjects


The subject of an image is one of the most defining things about a photograph. You may only shoot people or portraits, how about trying some landscape or still life?

A change in subject can:
  • Make you to shoot and see differently
  • Affect the way you set up and compose your shots
  • Inspire you to try new equipment
  • Help you gain valuable takeaways that can be applied to your main body of work

For example, I shoot mainly portrait and fashion, but experimenting with macro and still-life has taught me new ways to light and new lenses to use. Sometimes, a new theme or style emerges in the process, and I will be intrigued and inspired to keep exploring. That too carries over into the rest of my work, and it is where the evolution in my style or lighting takes place.

Motherland Chronicles #



10. Experiment with Lighting

Try new and different variations of lighting setups.

Subject aside, the other most defining element of a photograph is lighting. It sets the mood of your work and often plays a major part in composition.

Look through your new references and find a few things with lighting you have never done before. It can be a photograph, a painting, an idea, or simply a new subject. Do you usually shoot in natural light? Try something in the studio. Do you always use softbox setups? Try shooting under the mid-day sun or a hotlight.

Remember:
  • Take notes for each setup and variation as you go along
  • Draw lighting diagrams
  • Take photos of setups
  • If on location, write down the hours and light quality

Setup photos are great visual aids to accompany lighting diagrams. They help cover anything you may forget or find hard to include in your drawings, and can act as reminders for the environment and anything that may affect the ambiance light for location shots.

This exercise will allow you to discover new setups and create variations to your style. It will also help refine and add to what you currently do.

Motherland Chronicles #31 - Book of Roses

You may have previously tried to squeeze in a new setup while on other shoots, but without the constraints of a deliverable you can take your time here, it will give you a chance to get much better clarity on what you are doing.

If your test includes a model and a team, don’t forget to explain the purpose of your shoot to them beforehand. When you know you have their understanding, you can focus on your task more easily without worry.


11. Start a Personal Project

Motherland Chronicles #50 – Eurydice

After doing all of the above, you should be super inspired and excited! There should be a bunch of the new things you have learnt and want to experiment with. Pick a theme you love the most and start a personal project from there. It can be a mini-series or a major project, it doesn’t matter so long as you care about the topic. Check out my previous Personal Project Walkthrough to see how I did mine.


12. Be Patient

Motherland Chronicles #46 - The Seer

Before wishing you the best of luck on your journey, there are a few last things I want to say. First of all: be patient. Improvement takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight. Treat learning as a process to be enjoyed and know that it will pay off. Don’t try to rush it, don’t worry if it takes a while.


13. Take Breaks

Motherland Chronicles #47 – Womb, #49 – Umbral

Sometimes we get so caught up in creating we forget to take breaks, but sitting back and taking a breather is just as important as creating itself, you don’t want to risk burning out.

Read some non-photography books, watch some movies, marathon a TV show. Take your mind off photography. It could be a few days, weeks or months. You will come back refreshed, inspired, and with a better perspective for approaching your work again.


14. “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.”

Motherland Chronicles #51 - Erin

While feedback is important, remember that it is simply feedback. Don’t lose sight of who you are or the direction you want to take. Don’t forget the reason for your photography.

Remember, learning is a life-long journey. Stay true to yourself and enjoy the ride. Good luck!


Profoto Blog Series:
- Commercial Photoshoot Walkthrough, from Request to Post-Production / 中文翻译
- Personal Project Walkthrough, from Idea to Realization / 中文翻译

- 14 Steps to Improve Your Photography / 中文翻译

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Zhang Jingna:
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Article first posted on the Profoto Blog, 17th Sept 2014.

Friday, September 19, 2014

ELLE Russia Beauty, September 2014




ELLE Russia, September 2014


Photography: Zhang Jingna
Hair: Linh Nguyen @ Kate Ryan Inc
Makeup: Beau Nelson @ The Wall Group
Model: Anya Kazakova @ Wilhelmina
Photo Assistants: Ngoc Vu, Evelyn Liu, Melissa Castor


Second one's an outtake but love it so much. ♥

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Motherland Chronicles #48 - The Keeper


Motherland Chronicles #48 - The Keeper

Photography: Zhang Jingna zemotion
Hair: Kelsey Petersen
Makeup: Satya Linak
Model: Jessica Dru Johnson
Pyrotechnician: Sky Rockit
Production Assistant: Sophia Chang
Photo Assistants: Tobias Kwan, Xun Chi


Fire and water. ♥ Shot at Salton Sea on the same day as From the Ashes.

Some behind-the-scenes. Photos by Tobias Kwan and Xun Chi. 






Monday, July 28, 2014

Profoto Blog Series: Personal Project Walkthrough, from Idea to Realization

My second article for Profoto~

Motherland Chronicles #50 – Eurydice

Having covered the process for a commercial assignment in my last article, this time round I’ll be talking about my approach to producing a personal shoot in a similar fashion, but starting earlier in the workflow, from conceptualization instead of simply receiving a brief, as one would a commercial job.

Before I begin, I’d just like to say that I see commercial and editorial work as a resume of a photographer’s skills and personal work as the mark of his or her identity. With this in mind, I think a photographer’s approach towards commercial and personal work should be separated as much as possible. Of course, things like style and aesthetics will naturally bleed into one another, which is fine, but concept wise, a commercial work should always be done with a client’s products or services in mind, whereas personal work should be something a person wants to express or share with the world, thus making it personal.

In this post I’ll be covering the approach and considerations I put towards a typical production for one of my personal shoots. Unlike commercial projects, there are no set rules and requirements for how you do it. We may all work differently and this is my take. I hope you enjoy the read.


Motherland Chronicles #43 – Dreaming

1. Before You Begin

In most cases, we don’t have endless budgets to do whatever we want to do or an avenue of publication for personal work before it begins. Because of this, a lot of doing personal work boils down to challenges in getting people to work with you and finding time outside your main job to make it happen. Here are some key factors to consider in setting up the foundation of your series:

    1.    Theme and Concept
    2.    Your Team
    3.    Model Release
    4.    Model Search
    5.    Lighting and Style
    6.    Timeline
    7.    Budget
    8.    Image Terms


1.1 Theme and Concept


This is the starting point, whether it’s a broad theme or specific idea, it expresses what you want to say. It’s the reason you’re doing the project. Having decided on this, it will determine how you’ll approach your entire series in terms of style and affect how your production will be done and what will be involved.

Here are some of the images that inspired me for Motherland Chronicles:
                     
Top: Antoon van Welie, Suemi Jun; Bottom: George Frederic Watts, Yoshitaka Amano


1.2 Your Team



Makeup, hair, and styling styles change from person to person. Finding the right people who can work with you on a regular basis is extremely important, as their work will play a key factor in how your images will look. A dream team requires failures and time to put together. Be patient, work with people you like and who like you.

If all fails, there’s always a little DIY that can be done by either you or the model. If you don’t have time to learn makeup, models should be able to do their own makeup in most situations, so you can go from there as a starting point before you have a full team.


1.3 Model Release


This is very important and non-negotiable. Without a model release you’re going to run into a lot of problems when you want to publish your work. Get it out of the way upfront, make sure the model has no problem with your release and get it signed after the shoot is done. I usually use a full release, but sometimes with model agencies it will be limited to specific art-related usage like photobook, exhibition, prints, etc.


1.4 Model Search



Finding the right models can be an arduous task. But just like finding a dream team, you have to be tenacious about it. Personally, I go through a few hundred pages of models on ModelMayhem, scout on the streets, ask friends and people I know, and sometimes even ask assistants to model for me or do self portraits.

Model agency is an option too, but rates can get complex and some may not be willing to sign an all-rights release. Keep that in mind when negotiating. And don’t forget, whether you find a person online or in person, always do a casting.


1.5 Lighting and Style


This is a decision you have to make early on. Lighting and post processing are going to be the unifying factors in tying the series together. Even if your theme and concept is consistent, if the style and lighting don’t flow as a series, the images will look like they don’t belong in the same body of work.

I had a number of different influences of art for my series, so I focused on keeping the lighting very soft to create a painterly effect:

Motherland Chronicles #47 – Womb, #49 – Umbral

1.6 Timeline


It’s easy to procrastinate or leave images in backlogs when you’re the only one supervising the final work. Make a deadline for yourself and commit to it — there is no quality without quantity — push yourself to meet each deadline and move on. You can come back and polish up the images at a later date when the project has concluded.


1.7 Budget


There can be a lot of expenses involved in a production, draw up an estimate to get an idea of the big picture. It can be very simple, such as the basic things you know you’ll need each time, for example: lighting rentals, transports, meals, maybe $50-100 for props or set production once in a while. It’s good to know how much you’ll need to complete the series so you can ration expenses accordingly.


1.8 Image Terms


Similar to the model release, you want to mention this upfront with everyone you’re working with. Clarify whether you’ll be publishing images whenever each shot is completed and send them to the team, or if you plan on saving it all for when you’ve completed the project and will be publishing it in book form.

Motherland Chronicles #4 - The Waiting


2. Photoshoot Key Points

The above are what should be established at the beginning of your series to be kept consistent throughout the project. Below, I will address some shoot-specific points, covering my thoughts and work process leading up to each one:

    1.    Inspiration and Research
    2.    Conceptualization
    3.    Mood Board
    4.    Composition Sketch
    5.    Mood and Lighting


2.1 Inspiration and Research


Based on the theme you have decided for your series, research and find things that click with you. It could be ideas, words or images, save them all and create an inspiration stockpile.

From there, you can pick out specific inspirations or ideas, either make a list of images you have in mind to accomplish upfront, or if you’re like me, go off the list based on what you feel like for each new shoot.

Usually one element is enough to serve as inspiration for a shot — it could be a color, an item, a time period, a location. For cataloging, if it’s just an image-based inspiration, making a folder and saving pictures to it is more than enough. If it’s something that requires purchase, rental or scouting, Pinterest is a good idea for bookmarking the things you find. It’s easy to see everything at one go and also keeps the direct links and descriptions for when you need them.

Use Pinterest to keep track of information and links to costumes and props.

One thing to remember for research — stay focused and stick to your original theme — it’s easy to get distracted by new things you discover as you browse and go through links, but not everything that you come across will sit or mesh well with what you’re creating.


2.2 Conceptualization


Based on the inspiration you’re working with, build upon that element to come up with the concept for how the image will look like in your mind.

For example, if you are using a medieval dress, think about the kind of character who will don that, the sort of look she will have and the sort of persona she will carry. Based on her story, think about the type of hair, makeup, accessories and setting that she will be in.

Pull references for each element so you can remind yourself or show your collaborators when those are needed. Images will always convey more easily than words. When it’s all done, tune it realistically to what is achievable and suitable to your lighting and style for the series.

Below is an example from the series inspired by candlelight from Georges de La Tour’s paintings (sourcing for the chamberstick prop can be seen in the Pinterest screencap above):

Motherland Chronicles #46 – The Seer

Georges de La Tour

2.3 Mood Board


Create a folder or presentation with references for the style of hair, makeup and styling for your team. I usually narrow down the references I have from the conceptualization step, just 2-3 images for each person is enough.

It will be a good idea to include some mood references for lighting and composition as well, so your team can have an idea of how you will be shooting the photo.

This is a good time for the team to feedback and make suggestions to you or tell you if something cannot be done, so you can work together on an alternative. Clear communications are extremely important in these, make sure everyone knows what they’re doing.


2.4 Composition Sketch


Composition to me is one of the most important elements in photography. It’s a combination of the model’s pose, your framing, and lighting.

You don’t need mad skills in drawing, and personally I’m only capable of stick-figure sketches, but they serve just as well. It may be a simple scribble, but most of how the image will look takes on a more concrete shape in my head here.

When you’re done, use it as a point of reference for shooting and layout, and your team will also be able to present the best side of the model for that framing. Of course, you don’t have to stick with it 100%. But with these determined beforehand, you will be able to shoot more efficiently and smoothly.

For the triptych “The Three Graces”, I had three incredible Venetian masks from the maker Casin dei Nobili in Venice. Concerned about composition, such as how the images will go well and flow together, sketching out the set was especially important here:

Motherland Chronicles #26, 27, 28 – The Three Graces


2.5 Mood and Lighting 


As I’ve mentioned above, for a series, besides the stylistic direction of the model and clothing, lighting is one thing that should be kept consistent to lock the series together.

If at any time you think you may need to light something differently for any reason, be sure to test it prior to the actual shoot. For my series, I stuck with large light sources for a painterly look in the studio, and often used a large Profoto Deep White XL Umbrella and diffuser, with a mix of black and textured backdrops from Savage Universal for an added painterly touch.

Profoto D1 Air 500 with Deep White XL Umbrella


3. The Photoshoot


With all the pre-production well-prepared, be confident going into the shoot. My advice on set is the same as what I’ve talked about in the previous commercial photoshoot walkthrough post, there are just three things I’d like to add on:


3.1 Details


Personal work is the best place to be a perfectionist. Make sure you have every single element down pat and that they work well together with one another. I personally do at most 2 looks for each shoot, and for more complicated setups, one look can easily take 5-7 hours.



Motherland Chronicles #34 – In the Secret Garden

3.2 Take Your Time


If you’re uncertain about something, take your time and work it out. This took me time to learn but I’ve come to realize that I rather not regret not trying something.
That’s why working with a team you’re entirely comfortable with and can be understanding is so important. You don’t want to feel embarrassed, uncomfortable or rushed if you need a few moments to think about your next step or decision. You don’t want to be done with a shoot and think, ‘I wish I had taken the time to try that different backdrop just now’.


3.3 Model Release


Remember to get model release signed!


4. Post-Shoot

Send images to your team once you’ve finished them. Prepare both high resolution images as well as web-res for social media posting.

Make sure you file away the full credits of your team, as well as documents such as model releases or any agreements and contracts. Good documentation and filing is very important and you will appreciate the time you took to do them when you need it one day.


5. Publicity


The most amount of work you have to do post-shoot is probably publicity. Since it’s personal work, you’re the one responsible for getting it seen and published for your team.

There are many avenues online — such as portfolio galleries like Behance, deviantART, and Flickr, and social media websites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. But you should also prepare a press kit to send to blogs and news sites that feature works with similar themes to what you have done that you like.

If you get featured, share the news with your team! They’d love to know that their efforts are acknowledged and that people love the work you have done together. If the images are featured in print publications, don’t be shy about asking the editor for a hi-res PDF. It will definitely look better than the version you can get with your scanner, and will probably be something good to keep in your portfolio and resume for the future.



And that’s it! I hope you will have a good time shooting some personal work, if not, consider doing so! It’s so especially fulfilling and can be highly enjoyable, as well as being a great learning experience. Once again, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask. And if you’re interested in the personal series I’ve been working on, please check out the images below, the Motherland Chronicles website, and also behind the scenes on my blog!


Profoto Blog Series:
- Commercial Photoshoot Walkthrough, from Request to Post-Production / 中文翻译
- Personal Project Walkthrough, from Idea to Realization / 中文翻译

- 14 Steps to Improve Your Photography / 中文翻译

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Zhang Jingna:
Website
Instagram
Twitter
Facebook

Article first posted on the Profoto Blog, 26th May 2014. 

Motherland Chronicles #21 – Her Resting Place

Motherland Chronicles #44 – Germaine

Motherland Chronicles #49 – Umbral

Motherland Chronicles #12 – Winter Rose

Motherland Chronicles #23 – Dive

Motherland Chronicles #38 – A Prayer

Motherland Chronicles #32 – Ea

Motherland Chronicles #41 – From the Ashes