Amateur Hour/Blurred Lines

September 13, 2013 

While the Chicago Sun-Times debacle and this hilarious shaming site have helped rally support behind actual professionals, there's no doubt that the line between pros and amateurs has blurred considerably in recent years.

Despite this professional pride, I've tried to keep things in perspective while on assignment — something that's not very hard to do when some of the amateurs I meet have been shooting for longer than I've been alive, just not as their primary source of income. I do genuinely enjoy talking shop with people, as long as I'm not actively shooting, and though equipment discussions aren't my favorite, I've learning plenty of things during chats with gearheads.

Last week's assignment to cover a promotional photo shoot put me into a new position, however. The Hanford Reach Interpretive Center was getting images for its James Bond-themed fundraiser in October. I was not there to shoot these promotional images, so most of my shots were more about the process of making these pictures than the finished photo.

Southridge High students Shae Danford, 16, left, and Peyton Minton-Valley, 17, worked with their teacher Julie McInturff for the shoot, which had to be an exciting, but somewhat anxious experience:

You can see the rest of my take in the gallery, but for the most part, I avoided shooting the scene that they were photographing:

It's not that the set-ups weren't interesting, it just wasn't my job. And though I had thoughts on posing, backgrounds and lighting as we moved to each spot, I kept my mouth shut. That wasn't just because of a fly-on-the-wall approach to the assignment, but because it's really irritating to have another photographer suggesting things on your shoot and I would never want to do that to another shooter — no matter how inexperienced.

Offering unsolicited advice was something I did a lot more of when I didn't know how annoying it was to be on the other end. Even if the advice is good, it's easy to come off as arrogant, like in this gem of a Ken Rockwell post about how to spot an amateur. While I agree with many of the points he makes and often chuckle and shake my head when I see them happen, there are plenty of reasons pros might do some of the supposedly blatant amateur moves he so smugly derides.

If I was snarky, I'd point out that his circa 1990s website design makes him look like an amateur, but as I've been trying so desperately to prove over the last few grafs, I'm a nice guy.

It wasn't until theater veteran and photo shoot director Jo Brodzinksi asked for my opinion that I gave it, positioning the James Bond actors in a little pocket of light on the Richland Public Library stairs:

Even after that, I didn't want to take over the shoot, as the student photographers made their images from a floor above me. With a bit more time and control over the situation, I would have worked on their positioning a little more, moving the woman in red to the right a smidge and trying to get some better expressions as I figured out how to place them within the sun to avoid making them too squinty. Sure, it's a bit of a cop-out to say that I could have made a better picture if I felt the reins were mine to take, but I distinctly remember thinking, "What am I doing? This isn't my shoot."

If it was, I would have done things a lot differently. I would have lit some of the set ups for sure and probably not worried about moving to so many locations during the one- to two-hour shoot. I'm not saying I would have done better because I don't know what the students were able to capture and I didn't stay the whole time. I also don't know how many images they needed for their campaign and the various uses because that was irrelevant.

My humility was reinforced the next day when that crazy storm blew into town. I was wrapping up a shoot for a feature on Southridge High volleyball player Kimmy Brinkworth as the nasty weather arrived earlier than expected.

The winds picked up as Photo Editor Bob Brawdy called to tell me the storm was here and I rushed to get my gear into the car. Lightning started striking as I did this and I threw on a rain jacket and tried to figure out where might be a good spot to set up. I decided to keep it simple and headed across Highway 395, putting a plastic bag around my camera while waiting at a red light. I looped through the roundabout and decided to park and shoot from there, but by the time I got back and set up for this composition,

the lightning had already moved on. I stuck it out longer than I should have, hoping for a couple strikes behind the hill before cussing some more and snapping a really lame CYA in case I couldn't get in front of the storm again:

With the storm far outpacing the cautious traffic, I ended up swearing a lot more than making photos, stewing in my completely soaked pants with nothing to show for it. Readers were quick to start sending their photos our way, however, which gave me mixed feelings.

On the one hand, it totally covered my ass. I would have been embarrassed to run that lame rainy drive photo and we got some really nice lightning photos, which you can see in this gallery.

On the other hand, I felt like a total failure.

But on the third, and most important hand, it was yet another example of how much the photo industry has changed. We had free, unsolicited submissions within minutes of the storm passing, and a couple dozen after an hour or two. I certainly appreciate our readers' willingness to share their photos, some of which were really good and most of which were better than what I captured. But that so many skilled photographers were willing to give away their work for the fleeting glory of seeing their names in the Herald reinforced the anxiety I have of making a living as a freelance photographer — a path that will probably happen at some point either by choice or circumstance.

Sure, there probably would not have been a time in which the Herald would have paid for some decent lightning photos from a brief storm that didn't cause any real damage, spectacular though it was. And I have never been interested or good at nature photography, so this situation didn't even take any hypothetical future food from my potential children's mouths.

That doesn't make the ever blurrier lines any less unsettling as I once again realized how much more I have to learn in this job.

For more about the pros' approach...

Revisit this amazing post on The Image, Deconstructed about what went into Thomas Franklin's iconic 9/11 photo of firemen raising a flag amid the wreckage. It's an image that some might dismiss as simply "right place right time," but when you read the interview and see the lengths he had to go to, you see that this job is so much more than pushing a button.

Keeping with 9/11 for a moment, check out Time's LightBox for a slideshow of the photos that resonated most with photo editors, photographers and educators.

Back on the business side of things, Facebook quietly changed its Terms of Service again in a war of attrition it's bound to win.

There's a great interview with Zack Arias at A Photo Editor about his journey as a photographer, how he's learned from mistakes and become one of the most influential photo bloggers.

The business side of Burning Man apparently doesn't take the festival's own mantra of radical self-expression seriously, forcing journalists to adhere to very restrictive contracts, as humorously outlined in this Gawker piece.

And finally, have some fun with the weird sport of chuck wagon racing, courtesy of APADer Sol Neelman. Sadly, I missed the annual conference last weekend.

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