The Importance of Repeatable Photography

Posted by Jeff Berlin on January 12, 2010 – 12:10 am

Before I get started with this week’s blog entry, I’d like to thank my good friend Jeff Berlin for following up his comments in last weeks entry as guest blogger this week.

Jerry Avenaim’s comments last week in this space, their theme of discipline with regard to photography struck such a note with me that I felt compelled to reply. That reply became this blog entry.

Photo © Jeff Berlin (click to enlarge)

Like Jerry, I worked as a photographer, shooting primarily beauty, in Milan and then Paris. Likewise, Jerry and I both shot with large format cameras for Italian Vogue when we were young photographers. It was an amazing and invaluable experience for a young photographer to work with, and be groomed by, some of the top fashion and beauty editors in the business.

Milan, and Paris, where the market and clients are more international, served as a sort of boot camp for aspiring fashion photographers. It was well known that if one had the desire to ascend the ranks and shoot for the Vogues, Elles and Harper’s Bazaars of the world, which would hopefully lead to lucrative advertising campaigns, spending time pounding the cobblestones in Milan and knocking on the doors of magazines and agents was de rigueur, for everyone knew then that the ticket to the brass ring of fashion photography was through obtaining practical work experience, and tearsheets, in Milan and Paris.

I can only imagine what it’s like now — going to Milan or Paris like we did back in the day and knocking on Vogue’s door. Can you imagine Franca Sozzani or Ariela Goggi saying back then, Send me your link and we’ll take a look.

How many of us would have even made it to Milan had that been the case? Technology’s definitely been a double-edged sword for photography, for there’s no doubt that the while web has brought the world to your laptop, it’s also changed the game of international photography.

Indeed, had we all had websites like today, how many photographers would have even ventured on spec to Milan or Paris or London or Munich or Sydney or Sao Paulo or Tokyo, hoping to meet with magazine editors and score real tearsheets? We would instead send editors a link to our site, and upon our first and second rejection, or after not hearing back at all, perhaps we would never have persevered, plunked for that ticket on Alitalia and made a commitment to working long term in a foreign land.

Jerry said last week, “In the end, the image is not determined by the equipment used but by the person who was using that equipment.”

L'Oreal © Jeff Berlin (click to enlarge)

I have always strived, as a photographer, to find strength in my pictures by what was in front of my camera when I was shooting, and not rely on elaborate post production to whip an image into shape, and I definitely never “spray and pray” and hope for the best. This I learned back in my formative days in Milan, when there was no Photoshop or world wide web, and what I shot, on each single sheet of film, after careful, deliberate and collaborative composition, was what I got, and what I turned in to the magazine. Jerry mentions, “There is a very different feeling in hoping one shot out of 10 is the one you want as opposed to knowing the one shot you took is exactly what you wanted.” Shooting only a handful of sheets of large format film per shot, I had to know that each time I clicked the shutter, I was getting an image that I potentially could turn in to the client with confidence. Things don’t happen fast in large format, so the deliberative process is inherent to the medium. Obviously, one never gets the shot every time, but with experience and patience, I pulled a high percentage of good images from few sheets of film.

I should also mention that at this time, Italian Vogue limited the amount of sheets, or rolls of film that we could shoot per shot. We weren’t allowed many. And getting the shot came down to discipline. Spray and pray just wasn’t an option; it didn’t exist.

It would seem to me that the photographer who employs the spray and pray method would probably never reach the consistent level in their work necessary to warrant a trip to Europe for work. Hell, they might not even have the patience it takes to work, and live, in Italy, where things happen in their own time. This photographer might also be the same person who never shot a roll of film nor learned how to use a hand-held light meter, like a Sekonic, and instead ballparks their initial camera setting and fine tunes their exposure by chimping and the histogram. How would they ever consistently produce an image of quality. Or in other words, how would their work be repeatable.

And to consistently produce images worthy of world-class magazines takes a lot more than effective SEO, cool web design, and mad Photoshop skillz. (deliberate “z”)

Polaroid © Jeff Berlin (click to enlarge)

Polaroid © Jeff Berlin (click to enlarge)

That’s not to say that all of that isn’t important. It is, and digital technology has exponentially improved photography in so many ways. It’s brought so many more into the fray, which is great, but it’s also oversaturated the photo market, but that’s a whole ‘nother conversation. Now, though every serious photographer has a website and maybe even a blog, and it’s never been easier to promote oneself to a wide audience and get seen way beyond the horizon, we’ve also learned that technology is still not a substitute for meeting with clients, and potential clients, in person. Jerry and I would never have shot for Italian Vogue had we never knocked on their door, in person, and shown to the editors that gave us our break commitment, dedication, and a bit of humor and talent. No matter how fantastic a website, it doesn’t replace interpersonal dynamics, which go far in sealing the deal.

In the end, I’m still a bit old school and love to shoot film, which of course I then digitize. But I have embraced the vanguard of digital, love just as much to shoot with my 5D Mark II and manual focus Zeiss lenses, tethered cord-free with a Pocket Wizard. I marvel at the quality of the images I produce right from the camera. Though I do still try to use my DSLR much like I do my film cameras, by using lower capacity cards to approximate a roll or two of film, and by sometimes turning off the camera body’s LCD screen and waiting to see my images at the lab, in Lightroom.

Would love to hear your thoughts,

Jeff Berlin

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17 Responds so far- Add one»

  1. 1. Rob Greer Said:

    I wonder how many photographers will understand the benefits of the deliberate process you described. I for one am envious of your experience. For me, it seems like there’s never enough time–for personal or professional projects. And thus a frenzied approach seems the norm rather than the exception.

    [Reply]

    Jeff Berlin Reply:

    Hi Rob,

    It’s a hurry up and wait world. And especially with celebrity portraits, we’re often not given very much time at all to shoot – sometimes as little as 15 minutes total. Shooting can be frenzied, but that’s when one needs to have a solid technical background so they can consciously focus on getting the best shot in the shortest time. And it’s a challenge even for us to make time for personal projects. But we do. In fact, it’s personal projects that keep the passion alive.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Jeff

    [Reply]

    Mindy Reply:

    Wow 15 minutes… that’s amazing.

    [Reply]

  2. 2. Gerry Hanan Said:

    Jerry, thanks for having Jeff come back to expand on his initial comments & to add more from his perspective & experience.

    Jeff, I love what what you say here about the levels of success you and Jerry have both worked for, attained & enjoyed, also required “commitment, dedication, and a bit of humor” in addition to the talent.Having attended Jerry’s seminars, & having had a few conversations with him over the last few years, I have plenty of evidence to pronounce him guilty on all charges 🙂

    The statement of Jerry’s that you highlighted from his previous post about it being the person and not the equipment is so critical. The equipment has no vision, no creativity, no past experience to draw from, no way to respond to the environment, no knowledge of the rules & how to break them, no sense of urgency, it cannot knock on doors, charm the client or make the subject comfortable and it definitely has no sense of humor 🙂 While the technological advances in the last 10-15 years have been amazing, to rise above the increasing masses, there still has to be a living breathing artist who is completely relentless about shooting with intent.

    [Reply]

    Jeff Berlin Reply:

    Hi Gerry,

    Thanks for your comments. I can’t believe I left out humor. Believe me, in Milan, nobody’s going to be able to stick it out there without a healthy sense of humor, and patience. What you say about Jerry’s statement, which I highlighted– I couldn’t have said it better and agree wholeheartedly.

    Jeff

    Jeff

    [Reply]

    Gerry Hanan Reply:

    Jeff – I am happy to report that you are more comprehensive than you think – you did call out humor in your article 🙂

    Gerry

    [Reply]

  3. 3. Javier G Said:

    I have a question in the form of a post I want to ask, but before I do so I want to make clear that I am by no means a veteran with a wealth of experience, I’m a newbie that started with film but never really controlled it, then jumped to digital and I am working on making photography my career.

    Now to my “question”…
    Is it really true that what a photographer in the “film days” photographed instantly went to print on a magazine? Was there no control and polish in the dark room? Did everyone just develop the negatives to the specs, nobody pushed nor pulled film? Nor did anyone play with dodging and burning selected areas? Or even painting on the negative itself to retouch problems?

    I get that the point most photographers want to make when they talk about discipline and taking care of the details in order to get the best out of camera image.
    But most of the times it ends up reading like “in the film days” the dark room was a standard precise process where no other thing was done other than to develop the negative or positive to standard specifications and then given to the magazine to print as is in the cover.
    Making it read like: if you use Photoshop now “its bad” and if you need to use it as part of your final image to be created “you’re not doing it right”.

    I do understand that like digital cameras, digital retouch has given new short cuts to some that work at the expense of quality, but it isn’t all bad.

    [Reply]

    Jeff Berlin Reply:

    Hi Javier,

    When shooting for magazines back in the “film days,” there was usually less post production on my side of things. In most cases, I would just turn my edits in to the magazine and that was the end of it. Indeed, some magazines used to require photographers shoot transparency film. Besides pushing or manipulating the development of the film, there often wasn’t much for us to do. I would often push film, rarely and tried to avoid pulling film, and always had my film processed in the best labs in the city. When a magazine would allow me to shoot negative film, which has much more latitude that E-6, I would often consult with a printer making a range of prints for the magazine to work from.

    I never imply in my post that using Photoshop is bad. It’s an integral part of the image making process. I use it all the time, though not on everything. It depends on what I’m shooting. Portraits, fashion, beauty, for sure. Certain documentary projects — not at all.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Jeff

    [Reply]

  4. 4. Mike Allen Said:

    Hey Jeff, great post, I agree 99% with everything you’ve written. Visualizing the shot, taking time with lighting, communicating with your subject, all the little details that go into one photograph must not be overlooked and must be addressed before ever taking a picture..its the only way one can get consistent truly great photographs.

    I’ve never shot film, but moreso I have never used a light meter in my career not once. I disagree that its an essential part of a photographers kit bag or a neccesary skill trait to know how to use a light meter so one can have consistent images that one could expect if they highered me/a photographer for a shoot.

    I think there is almost a science or a feeling that becomes second nature after doing so many photo shoots with your gear. With time you begin to understand how much output your favorite light modifiers beam light at the different power intervals. I love to blend natural light with studio strobes as often as I can. While I shoot purely studio sometimes, I’ve gotten my favorite images on location. And i feel that one can get the exposure within 2 or 3 shots. The silver beauty dish is my favorite on location modifier. Its efficient, specular, but has enough softness to do what I want with models. I think a benefit to shooting without a light meter is you can quickly set up lights, shoot a few frames, dial it in and be ready to rock and roll. You dont have to spend time getting light readings, going back to pack, adjusting power levels, metering again all that. While it may not be a method for everyone, I think there are plenty of pro’s out there that shoot often enough without relying on a light meter.

    [Reply]

  5. 5. Mike A. Said:

    as a magazine Art Director Jeff’s comments reminded me of the early days of the MAC and the desktop publishing revolution; when anyone who had a mac and knew a couple of apps thought they were a designer or an artist even. well, it took a period of what i called the “bad-taste is in” era to remind everyone that qualty and professional looking designs MATTER, and image plus presentatiin are key.
    All the technology and hardware, while beautiful in itself, can not replace a discerning eye and miles of experience.
    thanks Jeff,
    m

    [Reply]

  6. 6. Henrik Bengtsson Said:

    Great post Jeff, and i would just like to add my own evergoing path of trying to improve my photography.

    When i started (again) with photography i came from a short stint with it 15 years earlier, which meant film only back then and “slaving” in the darkroom. So a couple of years ago i got a digital camera, and was thrilled. I started shooting like never before, all of a sudden i could see the picture (allthough very small 😉 directly and it was cheap. I could snap hundreds or thousands of pictures and it didnt cost me a dime more. Awesome!

    Then i tried to save all my pictures.. and allthough harddrives are cheap, the pictures accumulated quite a bit. And if i shot 200 pictures, i only used a few anyway that were good enough to use.

    After a while i started doing assignments and began shooting for clients and i vividly remember one client who told me when i came back after a fashion catwalk assignment with 2500 pictures, “We can’t handle this ammount of images. We only want max 30 that we can use.”. Now in all fairness, the show was extremely long (1 h 30 min) and there were many many designers showing multiple outfits so most photographers would have a lot of images. So i sat down, looked through the images and got the very best of the bunch and the client was happy (and even paid me for the extra hours sorting through the images ;).

    I then thought “hey, i used to shoot film back in the ancient days, i do sorely miss that.” so i got a old medium format camera and started playing again. And as Jeff said, when you shoot film you cant spray & pray (unless you are extremely rich ;D

    So gradually as i shot more and more film parallell, it changed how i shot my digital work aswell. Gone were the 500+ pray & spray sessions and i started shooting a lot less and getting a lot better results directly. Clients ofcourse were a lot happier to select from stronger and fewer pictures and i do believe i learned a lot faster and more efficient. It kind of comes as a normal bonus when you are “forced” to think before you click if you know what i mean.

    Lately ive begun shooting a lot 4×5 large format, with polaroids and with film and really enjoy it.

    Now dont get me wrong, i still shoot 99% of my work digitally (and so far, 100% of the client based work 😉 since they want a faster workflow than i have with film. But the personal filmwork does improve my commercial digital work and that has been very beneficial.

    Now if i could just learn not to prowl ebay for new film cameras to buy 😀

    Who knows though, maybe that Brownie no 2 can be used on an assignment somewhere 😛

    Take care all and keep shooting.
    /Henrik

    [Reply]

    Carlo Schüller Reply:

    Henrik, It is such a great experience when you don’t need to take a ton of exposures to get what you want.

    I had this really cool experience in a portrait session. I took three photographs. I felt immediately when I pushed the shutter the first time that I got the right moment. I said to my client: I got it, you’re done! Wow!

    Since that I do everything to avoid coming back from a job with to many exposures. Mostly if it takes longer its not getting better for these kind of session.

    Carlo

    [Reply]

  7. 7. Mark Kalan Said:

    I started shooting in the late 60s, worked for famous NYC photogs in the late 70s-early 80’s and had my own studio in Manhattan in the late 80s. i got to shoot for a few second tier fashion rags and everyone told me to go to Milan. I chickened out and have regretted it (shoulda, coulda, woulda…learn from my mistakes!). I figured if I did go to Europe I’d lose my future wife so I stayed. We’ve been together 31 years and all my friends that went have been diverced multiple times.

    I ended up using my skills to publish a Motorcycle Magazine until 2005, which allowed me to follow the digital revolution from the beginning and understand it from the publishing/printing side. now I’m shooting again. Even with digital – i really miss the repeatable quality I was able to produce after testing in my own studio with my own lights, buying bulk lots of film and keeping specific emulsion numbers. I’m very comfortable with digital but I really miss shooting film, so I’ve been taking my Hassy out regularly and thinking about buying a Leica M6 w/35mm F2 – my favorite outfit of all time!
    In other words – I agree with all of you!

    [Reply]

  8. 8. Pascal Said:

    Hi Jeff, Great Post!
    I started on film a couple of years back and I am really happy to have been able to do so. Thanks to the “constraints” inherent to the medium I learned discipline, technique and restraint (i.e. not a trigger happy person). I like taking my time in planning my shots. Digital gave me a lot of freedom and new possibilities but in the end the experience I got from shooting film is invaluable.

    [Reply]

  9. 9. Jason Said:

    Excellent post. The humor and insight is great.

    [Reply]

  10. 10. Greg Said:

    One may be able to grasp this idea by shooting on the streets Kertesz/Bresson/Evans style!! You totally got to pursue,wait & react to reality.. in reference to seeing angles but engaging the person is another aspect!!…
    Things I’ve read that pertain to this: Andre Kertesz said he sat in on a Stieglitz shoot for a portrait or model & reports it was so quiet the whole time you can hear a needle drop!!…. The story of an Irving Penn model, the one holding the pearls to her mouth with heels kicked off sitting at cafe table, she says they got all packed up & went to Paris she get dressed up everyday but he wouldn’t shoot nothing she got frustrated & made that pose & he said stop !!

    [Reply]

  11. 11. sid Said:

    I love the whole article….so much nostalgia. I agree and disagree with most parts. Back then in the 90s you could send in the portfolio to the magazine, just like links. People who have the urge they land in paris today too :). Don’t genaralise todays photogs by the students in classes and every dslr user on the net. There are a few nuts who believe in old school film discipline…but yes a handful for sure…but you guys won’t know them. This article is for the masses who own dslrs and not photographers trying in magazines in diff countries. Also, i completely agree about the slow and disciplined style of working….but if working for an art director, their habbits are completely spoiled by digital and want to look at every image on 30″ screen….again, just like polaroids, but they have and take control on every shot.

    [Reply]

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