Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why You Should Stop Comparing Yourself to Other People

I hear a lot of photographers say “you shouldn’t compare yourself to other photographers.” And in a lot of ways, it’s true; you shouldn’t compare yourself to someone else, no matter what the circumstances are. It’s like comparing a couch to a cat; I mean really, what’s the point? One is an inanimate object, the other is a living thing. One is used for sleeping on and the other sleeps on your face. One lives out its entire existence doing nothing of consequence and the other is a couch.

The real reason we shouldn’t compare ourselves to other people is because we’re nothing like them. Every person has their own experiences, priorities, dreams, bank accounts, families – and guess what? They are nothing like yours. People outside of you have their own lives, and you have no idea what it’s like to be them. Which is why you shouldn’t compare yourself to them, professionally or otherwise.

That’s all totally true and great and self-empowering…But the problem with it is that it’s a great response to the wrong issue. When you compare yourself to someone, do you really compare yourself to them?

I’ll use myself as an example. When I “compare myself to others” it usually goes something like this in my brain:

“Natalie Portman is so awesome and so beautiful. I wish I were a talented actress like Natalie Portman. She makes so much money and she’s famous and I just want her life and her looks. And maybe her babies. Damnit. I’ll never be like her.”

Or it goes something like this:

“UGH, Joey Lawrence is so talented and young and successful. He’s way ahead of me in life, does portraits of celebrities at a super young age and probably makes bank. He uses such nice camera equipment and lighting and travels the world to do photography and I just want all of that and I don’t have any of it. There’s no way I’ll ever get to where he is.”

NEWSFLASH: I won’t ever be where Joey Lawrence is in his life. Want to know why? Because I’m not him. Even if I had all his lighting equipment and received the same opportunities in life I would only be able to do what a Cindy Yetman would do in those situations and take photos like a Cindy Yetman would take photos because that’s it. That’s the limit. When you strip the noise away, it comes down to you being who you are and you can’t change that.

So here’s the problem with those types of comparisons: not only is it completely unproductive, but you start to assume there are all sorts of things wrong with you. The goal was never to truly draw comparisons from the start – “comparing ourselves to other people” is actually code for “using someone else to find my flaws (real or imagined) and bitch about my life.” Because when I compared myself to Natalie Portman a second ago, I suddenly wanted to have a full body transplant and be a famous actress and everything I had in my life just wasn’t good enough. I used her as a convenient symbol to represent things I want in life; a higher income, good looks, recognition. But that’s just it – when I “compared myself” to her, I didn’t at all. I know nothing about her as a person. And maybe if I did I wouldn’t be so quick to want to trade places; everyone has issues, and everyone has joys. Why are hers suddenly better than mine?

Here’s my proposal: we throw away the “comparing ourselves to others” bullshit. Just toss it out the window and be done with it altogether. Comparing yourself to another person is unhelpful and often negative. But it’s important to realize, however, that comparing your work to the work of other artists is imperative for growth. It’s the sort of thing required in an art graduate’s thesis/defense. It’s important because you place yourself in the world of the artists around you; you enter into the “discussion” about art. You appear on the spectrum of the art scene, and have to analyze where you fit in and why your work is important. Doing so doesn’t defeat you like “comparing yourself to others” does – it takes you out of isolation. We need to actually critique our own work and the work of other photographers. And when I say “critique,” I really mean it. Like legit art class sit-your-ass-down-with-a-friend-in-front-of-your-portfolios style and critique. Because critiques are structured and specific and designed to be helpful – and because I do think it’s important to compare our work to the work of other artists. We are our work.

There are rules to critiquing, there are questions you should ask; and there is research to be done before critiquing the work of someone not in the room with you. If you’re up for the challenge, here are some critiquing do’s and don’ts:

  • DON’T ever use the words “I like” or “I don’t like”. This isn’t the time to share your personal preferences. If you like the color pink in that photograph, that’s great, really. Should we talk about your favorite flavor of ice cream too or are we gonna critique some art?
  • DO state formal facts about the work of art being critiqued. Maybe the artist used the color pink – is it significant? Is it a monochrome pink? Would you say pink is used as an accent or as a primary color of the composition? What does it convey?
  • DON’T change the topic or make the critique about something it’s not. Try not to bring in your opinions of what the artist should have or shouldn’t have done if you don’t know what their goal was.
  • DO read the photograph and make logical inferences. How does the photograph make you feel? Does it portray any specific emotion? If so, how? What does the photo lead you to believe the artist is trying to say?
  • DON’T ever call something “bad”. If you think a photograph is bad, WHY do you think it’s bad? Is everything about it bad? Also, remember that “bad” is an opinion word and we don’t use that here. Feel free to hate a photograph and have your opinions; in fact I think those opinions are important. But you need to separate those emotions from a critique, because those are negative and unhelpful to the artist whose work you’re critiquing.
  • DO point out things that are confusing, inconsistent, or could use improvement. Instead of saying “yeah this photo’s print quality is horrendous” maybe you can say “The photograph appears to have a pretty consistent grain – like the film speed was really high or the resolution is really low. Is the graininess intentional? You might want to consider resizing for a crisper look.”
  •  DON’T ever have nothing to say. THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING TO SAY.
  • DO describe the photograph in detail.
  •  DON’T come unprepared. Have specific questions ready to ask your critique partners about your work. Give a short “artist’s statement” about your series before your partners start to critique it, but NEVER interrupt people or join in when they are critiquing you. That is your time to absorb and think of more questions.
  • DO ask the artist questions about their work, and take into consideration what their intentions are so you can make helpful observations and suggestions. Did the artist complete their goal? Why or why not? What do you think their goal is?

You can of course use these tips to critique your own work and practice your critiquing on work you find on the internet; but the most useful critiques are the ones where you invite a couple of your artist friends over and all print out 5-15 of your best photos for a specific series. You should find a blank clean wall, pin the photos up, and go around to each series and critique.

If you're still reading (I know, I know, TL;DR) check out some photographs from a shoot I did with my bombshell lady friend Taylor! She's the hair and makeup artist for the vintage fashion blog I photograph for. I took these photos to submit to the annual Crossroads Trading Company photography contest - which I didn't win. But hey, I got some cool photos out of it. They'll regret it when I'm famous.

Thanks for reading,

Model: Taylor Stender
Hair and Makeup: Taylor Stender

Monday, October 21, 2013

My First Dance Shoot

I've always wanted to do a dance photoshoot. I took ballet as a kid, and discovered swing dancing when I moved to the Seattle area, so my fascination with dance has been sort of on-going my whole life. Ever since I got into photography I knew I wanted to photograph dancers and their movement – and I also knew it would be terrifying. What if I don’t get my timing right? What if the lighting doesn't lend itself to the best settings? What if my photos don’t accurately capture the majestic beauty of dance and its fancy dancers?!

Well, Rebecca and Paul, swing dancers extraordinaire, helped put my fears to rest when they asked me to do a promo shoot for them. I was so excited to be doing my first ever dance shoot! And I’m so glad it was with Rebecca and Paul; they were fun to work with, laid back, and absolutely hilarious – I couldn't have asked for a better couple to shoot for my first dance series. Not only do they teach swing dance, but Rebecca also runs her own dance blog with great tips for beginners and professionals alike! She is even a freelance writer, and gives away great blogging tips one post at a time

The best part about photographing Rebecca and Paul was that they are just downright good people. You can see their love for each other when they dance together, you can see their love for jazz, you can see their joy. They are kind, great conversationalists, and were oh-so patient with me on shoot whenever anything unexpected came up and we had to change our plan. Shooting with them was a refreshing reminder that you choose who you photograph - not just the other way around.

Check out the results from our shoot below!


Thanks for reading,

Makeup and Hair artist: MariaSharp
Dance World Takeover: http://rebeccabrightly.com/
Rebecca’s blogging tips and freelance writing: http://words.rebeccabrightly.com/
Rebecca and Paul’s dance lessons: http://rebeccabrightly.com/learn-lindy-hop/

Sunday, October 13, 2013

You Can't Always Get What You Want

For those of us who don’t have a studio, don’t own lighting equipment, and don’t use a camera worth thousands of dollars, shooting in a professional way without all of the “professional” bits can be frustrating.  Sometimes I feel so limited by my photography budget that I just sit around and feel bad for myself because my photos don’t look good past ISO 800, I don’t have enough money to buy a wider angle lens (or any lenses at all), I don’t have reliable speed lights because they’re knockoffs, and I’m not Joey Lawrence, or even dating Joey Lawrence, because guess what? You can’t always get what you want. Nor can you be Joey Lawrence and date yourself. But if you could I would be the first to know.

I regularly think up fanciful photoshoot concepts that require one of many things I don’t have; a studio, studio equipment, lighting equipment, photography assistants, access to high end wardrobes and famous make-up artists, etc. Then I pout and whine because I don’t have what I need in order to actually execute said photoshoot concepts. Perhaps the production value lust is all my own, but maybe you can relate to the general feeling of “Wouldn’t it be so awesome if I did THIS?” and then you realize, hey, uh, oh yeah, I can’t afford that.

I have a word document full of these ideas; and someday, I’ll do them all. But you can’t just live in Someday-Land where you’re rich and famous and Natalie Portman, so I came up with some rules to follow in the meantime:

  • When you’re brainstorming photoshoots, limit yourself. Instead of thinking: “What do I want to do a photoshoot of?”,  Say to yourself: “What can I do a photoshoot of, in the middle of rainy season in Seattle, without lighting equipment, with xyz camera and lenses, and all of my hottest friends?” Because you’ll get an answer you can use and it won’t make you eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. But if you do eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, you should eat Half Baked because it’s bomb.

  • Love your equipment. Seriously, if you start loving your equipment instead of viewing it as a cheap pile of metal holding you back, it will affect the way your photoshoots go. I know this because that’s the way I felt for a long time. Positive reinforcement is key; even if you secretly want another camera, or another lens, or whatever it may be, you need to compartmentalize the shit out of those feelings so you don’t think about it every time you use your camera. Every night you need to sit your ass down in front of that equipment and you LOVE IT. You thank that camera for capturing your best portfolio photos and you just sit there and think about all the good things it’s done for you and helped you with. Then kiss it goodnight and tuck it in and never say a bad thing on it again. It’ll change your life.

  • Stop it with the blame mentality. When something is not going according to plan on shoot, don’t blame other people for it. If you’re the photographer, you run show; so boss up and take responsibility. You don’t have to be self-deprecating and it doesn’t mean the shoot is ruined; just recognize that something is not going smoothly and do your best to find a solution and address it. Don’t just stand by awkwardly if your team is taking things in a direction you don’t like or if a backdrop is malfunctioning; communicate, innovate, do something. Better camera equipment is not a solution (see above). And don’t bring out your frustration on your models, your MUAHs, your assistants, or your equipment. Announce a 10 minute break and go chill out if that’s what you need.

  • Bring snacks to a photoshoot. Because otherwise you’ll turn into a diva. This can also happen to everyone else; so providing extra snacks is heavily advised.

These photos are of Joachim and Jim performing at Challenger Ridge Winery. Joachim is an amazingly talented singer songwriter who has a baby angel voice that sounds like eating ice cream. You can listen to his songs here! Jim is his badass bass player who serenades the world with his sweet bass-y goodness. You can listen to some of Jim’s work here! I go to see them play quite often, but before I adopted the aforementioned technique of only biting off what I know I can chew, I showed up at an indoor concert and attempt to take photos. With my unreliable flash, limited ISO settings, and a limited lens selection, I left feeling like an untalented hack with crap equipment. Naturally when I heard about an upcoming outdoor concert I showed up with my camera! This time not to my disappointment.

The moral of the story: you can’t always get what you want. But if you're a photographer, you probably already have what you need and maybe we just shouldn't complain so much.

- Cindy