Friday, July 22, 2011

Tilt shift

WOW. Most days your life's axis operates on a relatively even keel. The odd wobble here and there but otherwise, you manage to keep your balance.

Other days, something happens to tip your axis. Someone gives it a nudge at the right time and in the right way and before you know it, life is spinning in a different direction.

That was my day yesterday.


It was a day of dichotomies. The first half of the day was filled with life and self-affirming positivity and the second half with professional frustration and challenge. Yet, strangely enough, both situations were closely linked.

Let me explain. (it may take a bit but hang in there.)

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to her favorite photographer, based here in Sacramento. (For a few reasons, I'm going to keep the photographer's name out of this post but email me if you want to know who she was.) Anyway, I of course checked out said photographer's site. To say her work was unusual for the Sacramento market, was an understatement. There is really nobody else I have found like her in this area. Put your feelers out to the Bay Area or further afield - sure - but here, in good-ole Sac, notsomuch. Which is not to say that there aren't great photographers here - there truly are - but this lady is an artist. Everything about her work and her branding have a distinction and style that is clearly and personally defined. Her entire body of work has a voice. It slapped me around the face quite quickly that she was unique. (I'm also guessing that, since my friend is in the sales/marketing field, she got slapped similarly.)

After perusing the website, I found a paragraph about the photographer herself and part of that addressed budding photographers who were looking to pick her brain. While she doesn't host workshops or mentoring sessions, her words suggested that she was open to sharing some inspiration with me, if I got in touch. Which I did. And she was.


She agreed to meet me for some coffee. Yesterday was our coffee-date.

I admit, I went in almost without agenda. I had a short list of questions I wanted to ask but no clear goal for what I wanted out of the session. Honestly, I didn't know how much she would be comfortable sharing and I wanted to be respectful of that fact; it's one thing to nurture new, local photographers in your community, another to give-up your hard-won experience and insights for the price of a cup of coffee.  If nothing else, I thought I would get to meet and learn more about the person behind the work and come away having had a nice chat about photography.

Man, did I underestimate this lady.

In many ways, our conversation was very esoteric, which is typically not my comfort zone. At the risk of stereotyping our deeply complex and multi-faceted personalities, she is a calm and thoughtful owl and I am a panting, over-enthusiastic puppy dog. I don't know if that makes sense, maybe it does, maybe it doesn't but without 500 words, I don't know how else to boil it down for a blog post. But that's how I felt during the conversation. She speaks slower than me; she has a steady gaze to my darting eyes; and her body language is calm while I constantly fidget and gesticulate. And, while I have spent the last fifteen years of my life learning to say fifteen words when only five will do, in order to package every question or thought for public consumption, she discards the package, removes the fluff, and dives right into the issue before her. Her ability to read between my words, digest my randomly expressed thoughts, and interpret my body language within such a short period of time and then poke me in the ribs with her laser-focused and spot-on insight, was uncanny and a little unsettling.

In many ways, I felt very jealous of her path to her passion and saw starkly, in just that short time, how our lives had shaped us. She went to art school, has been mentored by great photographers, and has followed the artist's path through her life, being positively encouraged to nurture the expression of her innermost self to feed her art. I, on the other hand, have spent the last 15 years in the corporate world, being encouraged to suppress and/or change my expression of my innermost self to suit other people. The fact that we approach photography through different lenses is therefore unsurprising.

I am not ashamed to say I left in tears. Good tears. It was exactly what I needed to hear and never even knew it.

Like I said, it was a tad esoteric so some of it was "you had to be there" dialogue, however, let me summarize what I got out of our hour together:
  1. I need to stop looking at other people's work. I am overstimulated and distracted by it and it is preventing me from defining who I am as a photographer.
  2. I need to work from within. Forget (most) workshops, classes, guides, actions, presets... what do I really want to get out of them? How to learn to be someone else? What I have to offer as a photographer is already inside me. It's my own artistic vision not someone else's vision, it's who I am when I'm with my clients not who I think I should be, that will help me be the best that i can be. I can't get that from someone else. I have to spend time nurturing it within and pulling it out of me.
  3. The words that resonate for "my style" are: contrast, color, drama, warmth emotion, clean lines, and a little whimsy. Make everything about these words from the way I take the photo, to the way I edit it, to the way I brand myself. 
  4. Don't blog every session, only your best work. 
  5. Spend less time editing. Significantly less time. I mean like, cut it down by two thirds. Whoah! This one smacked me in the face. What am I fixing? Either I took a good photo or not. Either I know what my editing style is or not.
  6. Find beauty in the world around you. Be content in yourself and thankful for your life and express that through your art. Beauty comes from within. (This isn't something I can just turn-on, granted, but it's worth remembering.)
  7. Learn off-camera flash. (I've been wanting to do this anyway.)
  8. Take pictures of 30 things that are ugly and make them beautiful.
  9. Take one picture a day, every day of the same thing, from a unique perspective.
  10. Breathe and slow down. Get out of my head and into the moment. Focus on being present with my surroundings and my subjects. (#1 will help with this.)
  11. Forget weddings. Not forever necessarily but for now. Go back to why I got into this in the first place - I love taking portraits. Quite apart from anything else, being gone at least one full weekend day every weekend during the summer, does not work well for my family. 
Like I said before, in a lot of ways all of this is like asking me to undo what I've spent several years doing to myself.  I can't even begin to express here what a huge thing that is to me. If your life hasn't been like this it may be hard to connect with. Yet in no way am I saying that the last 15 years of my life were bad or worthless - in fact I learned many, many valuable things that will benefit my photography business. But what I'm trying to get across is that this is a completely different skillset, a completely different way of approaching "your job". I mean, like a whole 180. I feel like a coat that all of a sudden has to be able to turn inside out and become reversible.

LOL. I know, you're thinking: that's a lot for one coffee date. Like I said, I was surprised myself. It was quite possibly one of the most valuable hours I have ever spent with a stranger.

And wasn't the timing perfect, given my post of just the day before?

Clearly, I have a lot to think about. At the same time, I feel more focused and am generally re-energized. I can't wait for my next client session, truly, because each session opens up a new opportunity for me to work on all this stuff - as well as, of course, delivering some cool images for my clients!

Speaking of which, right when I say I'm going to do fewer sessions, I get three inquiries from my website and schedules three new sessions this week. Isn't that how life always happens?

In terms of the other half of my day, I can't really share too much because it's a work thing and I don't blog about work things for a multitude of reasons. Let's just say that something went down that has big impact to the company and to me , was not my fault, and where the responsible party will not take ownership of the problem or the solution and is, in fact, placing the "lesson" on my doorstep. There is history and back-story here that would take forever to explain but the long and short of it is that I'm fed up with overcompensating for other people's weaknesses.

Not only did it result in one of the most challenging phone conversations of my entire career, the eventual outcome wound up telling me a lot about the priorities of the company I work for and I can't say I'm too happy about them. Such is life, I guess.

How is this related to the first half of the day? Well because the message of being true to myself resonated here too. I ditched allowing myself to be the punching bag, treading on eggshells for a quiet life, and dealing with the issue from a place of "I'm bound to be wrong" (and by wrong I mean ME as a person being wrong, not me being wrong about something. Different things.) 
Instead, I was authentic and honest in my response to the situation. It made it harder work, more emotional, more challenging, and ultimately I'm sure there will be repercussions. But the one thing I can say for sure is that I am not second-guessing my decision to handle it the way I did and I will not apologize for it in retrospect either.

I have no doubt that this will only further entrench certain people's opinion of me as being overbearing and stubborn or however I have been previously pigeon-holed but I actually just don't care anymore. Here am I in one area of my life being called upon to nurture who I am and bring that out in a positive way and it only calls to attention even more the other half of my life where I am constantly being negatively judged for who I am asked to be someone else. Like I said, dichotomies.

Not sure where that leaves me but there you go. I'm just going to let this loose-end flap in the breeze for a while and be ok with it.

In the meantime, me and my camera are gonna have some fun.

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011

    Learnings and reflections on being a part-time photographer

    I just finished editing my very first wedding photo shoot.

    For a first foray into the wedding photography world, I think I did ok. I mean, I've been to weddings, I've been a bride twice, and I immerse myself in the work of other photographers doing this kind of thing every day. But outside of that, I've never been a 2nd-shooter with a professional photographer and have never been through the flow of a wedding from the perspective of a photographer.

    So, I knew, up-front, that I had a lot to learn. I wasn't wrong.

    Here are my key take-aways:

    1. Patience and focus. Don't let external variables, personalities, or timelines distract from what you have been hired to do. (Which is not to say, be stubborn and inflexible, just focused.) This is obviously easier to do if you have a ton of experience under your belt and the process is old-hat.
    2. Pre-wedding communication. How are the couple scheduling their day? Have they built in enough time (with cushion, for the inevitable delays) for you to get the shots they need?
    3. Alignment with your style and goals. Is the photography as important to the bride and groom as the results will be to you? Is their style of wedding one that matches your style of photography and your goals for your portfolio? This relates to a whole set of variables: time to take photos; tolerance of the bridal party for getting the images you would like to get to make them happy; how comfortable the bride and groom will be working with you etc...
    4. Posing. I typically lean toward a more candid style of photography but, for weddings, you need to give your subjects more direction. I think this will come with experience. I'd really love to work as an assistant/2nd-shooter for an experienced photographer at this point. I feel the "lacking" if you know what I mean.
    5. Time to edit = a lot. My biggest challenge, doing this after my day job, was finding a clear block of time to edit the photos. It took me a few weeks, which is no time at all for a full-time photographer (most of whom take 6+ weeks) but usually this is at least in part because the photographer also has other sessions to edit. I felt the process lacked creative consistency for me because I was editing in 1-2 hour fits and spurts. By the time I was half way through I almost wanted to go in a different direction with the style of the edits but then had already committed myself and didn't have time to change the first half. All of this means I lost my momentum and enthusiasm (not entirely but I was feeling overwhelmed/dejected.) Honestly, I had a hard time with the editing, run out of steam, and I think it showed in the final product.
    6. Time. Time. Time. Weddings require a lot of time, a lot of focus, a lot of creative energy both in preparation, on the day, and subsequently in choosing and editing the final photos... or, at least, this one did for me. Right now, this is hard for me to fit into my life. It makes me question if this is an aspect of photography I should pursue right now. 
    Don't get me wrong, I make this sound negative: it wasn't. I had a great time and I'm thankful for the opportunity. Learning about where you need to improve is just as important as having a positive experience that reaffirms your strengths.

    Yet, as I think about the next 12 months for Memories by Michelle, I have a definite vision for where I want to go, what I want to achieve (creatively and from a business perspective) and it all seems a little overwhelming. I just don't have the time to devote to it that I want/need to do things to the standard that will make me satisfied. Further, I know I have made choices this past year that don't fit in with where I want to go in the next 12-18 months

    Part of what this wedding, and the build-up to it with a ton of sessions this year, has taught me is that, as I referred to in #5 and #6, to achieve what I really want to achieve with my photography, at the standard at which I want to achieve it, I need to be more strategic in the way I approach my sessions.

    Basically, I need to do fewer sessions to avoid burnout, and only accept clients whose vision for their end product not only matches where I want to go with my photography but also makes the time I spend working on the images worthwhile from a business perspective. Otherwise I run the risk of losing steam, getting sloppy, and devaluing what I want to achieve in the long term.

    It's been an interesting and fun 12 months on this ride so far but I'm tired and I feel it - which is not a good place to be when you need to pour your passion and enthusiasm into your work. I've loved every one of my photo sessions (32 in 9 months) and have learned so much but now I feel I need some space. Some time to do some workshops, attend some seminars, and experiment with different techniques. At the same time, I don't want to stop doing sessions. I want to BUILD this business still. I want to move forward. I just wish I could press pause for a while.

    Let's not even get into: the time away from my daughter (both mentally and physically); the strain on my husband and our relationship (do we have one right now?); the fact that my relationship with my parents has pretty much paired-down to seeing them as I drop off/pick-up my daughter; the housework and laundry that rarely gets done; the fact I haven't watched a TV program in months and have very little idea of what's going on in the world; and the short-term memory lapses that result from being spread too thin and that drive everyone in the family crazy.

    No, this is not a woe-is-me post. I am not seeking sympathy. These things just are. They're a reality, a trade-off to pursue a dream, and I have to take note of them before they spiral out of control. I've been out of balance and I need to fix that.

    So, I feel in a bit of a quandry. I'm sure it's not unique and I'm sure I'll push through it but I'm trying to absorb everything I am feeling, process it, and turn it into positive action.

    I'll share as I go along. Of course, advice is always appreciated.

    Friday, July 08, 2011

    10 random stream-of-consciousness wants and wishes

    1. I STILL want to de-clutter my house. I just don't have the time. But I notice that the busier I am, the more untidy and more cluttered my environment is but the more frustrated I become because I don't have time to waste looking for things.
    2. I wish I knew where my brain cells went. I feel like my cerebrum has been lobotomized. I have almost no short term memory to speak of. I am always losing, misplacing, or forgetting things. (See #3)
    3. I want to find my house/car keys. It's really bothering me. I have two sets and one of them I used on Monday during our driveway fireworks session to open my car and get my tripod out. Haven't seen them since. I'm kinda worried I left them on the grass or the driveway somewhere and some random person picked them up and plans to either steal my car or cart-off all the stuff in my house (if they can find any of it under the clutter.)
    4. I wish I knew what died in my fridge. We've cleaned it out from top to bottom but still, every time we open that door, it smells like 4 month old chicken breasts. GAG.
    5. I wish I could stop thinking about planning a vacation. Every inch of me is itching, except for the part of me that says: you can't afford it. (Note: this is usually the part of my brain that is wildly out-voted - possibly why I never actually "have" the money to go on vacation. Hey, maybe American Express lobotomized me for this exact reason!?)
    6. I want to have time to take my 52-week pictures BEFORE they're due. I so want to be creative but the time just eludes me. This week's topic is "windows". Betcha there's some cool shots to be had Downtown. Not going to make it there, though, so maybe I have to clean the windows of my house grab my #1 prop - my daughter - as second-best idea.
    7. I wish I could take away the troubles of a few of my friends right now.  Some people who I am very close to are going through a tough time - the kind of tough time where you're sort of at a loss to do anything to help them. If you're reading this and can think of anything, friends, just email or call, k?
    8. I want a pool in my back yard. OK, I said it. It's too expensive, financially it doesn't fit in with my life plans, and realistically it's not going to happen for those reasons and more but I want it. I want it like a kid wants candy before bedtime. 
    9. I want an assistant. A free one, of course. I could be so much more productive with someone to do all the little things, ya know? Anyone at a loose end and independently wealthy may apply by posting in comments with their email address. Thanks!
    10. I want book 11 of the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries. I've just finished #10 and my friend has #11. I am so tempted to run over there and get it from her but I'm delaying the pleasure because it's the last one right now. Plus, in the meantime, I can actually FINALLY finish reading my e-book on setting up Memories by Michelle as a profitable business and brand for 2012, or watch one of my many photo tutorial DVDs at night instead. Oh, but what I really want is hot, vampire sex.

    Tuesday, July 05, 2011

    Our 4th of July...

    ... was supposed to be like this:


    ... but wound up like this.


    Sigh. Parenthood. Full of curve balls.

    In short, my 4th of July weekend was supposed to go like this:

    1. Arrive in Tahoe on Friday afternoon. Reeeelax with my good friend, Kim.
    2. Wedding photo shoot on Saturday. Return home. Drink wine with Kim. Watch our kids play.
    3. Sunday and Monday. Swim in the lake. Drink wine. Hang out with family and friends. Reelax.
    Instead, my Friday was hijacked by my day job. Completely insane amounts of work. My drive up to Tahoe was 3 hours long, stuck in traffic. The wedding went great but on Saturday night Daisy did not sleep barely a wink. I think I got 4 hours of sleep... intermittently. On Sunday morning it was obvious that things were not heading in the right direction: Daisy was lethargic and unhappy. By Sunday afternoon, she wouldn't sleep and had a temperature. Hubby and I conceded: we probably needed to go home. Nothing wonderful could be achieved by staying in Tahoe with a sick toddler who was constantly whining for home.

    So we left the house we'd rented with friends in Tahoe, the beautiful 80 degree weather, and drove back down to the hellish heat of Sacramento, exhausted and dejected.

    I was not only pissed that we'd wasted money on a vacation rental we had barely had time to enjoy but I had really looked forward to spending some time with my good friend, Kim, and relaxing for a couple of days before heading back home to my insane schedule. It just seemed horribly unfair, given how stressed I had been about getting up there in the first place: the preparation, the packing, the trying-to-close-out-work, all with little pay-off. Sigh.

    Instead we abused my willing mother and passed our sick toddler off to her for the majority of July 4th, while Hubby and I sought an afternoon's break from the heat at the movie theater. We then bought $90 of ear-piercingly loud fireworks, which we half-heartedly set-off in front of our house the minute the sun went down.

    As it turns out, it was just as well we left Tahoe. A visit to the pediatrician this morning confirmed that Ms. Daisy has a raging ear infection. Poor kid has had a low-grade fever for a few days now, her nose won't stop running, and her eyes are watering like crazy. I feel so bad for her (and us!)


    Here are some photos from the two halves of our doomed weekend.


    Hudson, who Daisy was having a blast with until... well... you know.


    Hudson and Kim, braving the FREEZING lake water.


    The calm before the storm



    Beautiful Lake Tahoe, where the water was clear, the temps relatively cool, and where snow still capped the mountains.


    Back down to triple-digit heat and a more low-key 4th.






    For all July 4th photos, click here.

    This is the 2nd of 3 Independence Days as parents that have been goddamned awful. I am living in hope that future ones will prove to be more fun.

    Maybe it's the ghosts of the Founding Fathers paying some kind of rotten joke on the Brit?
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