It's a good metaphor for the way I've built up my style and technique over the last couple of years. I pretty much started in the dark and worked my way up to where I am now by adding one layer of new knowledge after another until I'm reasonably satisfied with the results I'm currently getting. The thing is though, I hate that word, "satisfied." It leads to "beautifully boring" and every time I get close to that place I find myself panicking a little and looking for something new and unexpected to shake things up a bit.
Do you ever do that?
Sure you do, I think most creatives feel that way often, and while our spouses rarely understand it, it's actually a healthy thing. However, I think it's caused by something that's easy to miss and the way we tend to try and solve it can actually make it worse with effort. The tendency is to keep adding bigger and brighter lights (knowledge, technique, equipment, etc.) until we start to go blind trying to see our way through all of that brilliance into the bold new future we all feel compelled to create. I think I've found the answer - "Don't forget to wink."
That's a phrase I've been saying to myself often lately and it always brings me around to a clearer vision and renewed purpose when the lights start to get a little overwhelming. It's a reminder to close one eye and look through the view finder on my camera and to stay there until I see the story I'm shooting isolated from all of the clutter. I can stand there with both eyes open, looking at a room full of light stands, softboxes, umbrellas extension cords, battery packs, light meters and all of the other things that go into building a complex shot and it just doesn't seem to be coming together. Then somewhere out of my subconscious comes that little phrase, "don't forget to wink." I close one eye, and peer into the view finder. It's like shaking a magic snow globe and getting transported into another world. There's a magical little story unfolding in there and I'm the only one in the room who can see it (shhhh - wink, wink! This is a secret world all photographers get to themselves for a few moments on every job, let's keep it quiet ok?).
"View finder." What a perfect name, but you can't just look through it and turn it into one, you have to learn to wink through it. You wink at something you share a secret with and in this case, the secret is the story. When I tell myself, "don't forget to wink," it's a reminder to think about the story going on in that little magic snow globe and be sure I'm telling it in the most engaging way possible. The images that capture that wink will stand out over the images that don't as sure as a person winking at you in a crowd will draw your eye in a hurry.
President Clinton was famous for the sign on his desk that read, "it's the economy stupid." As creatives, the sign on our desk should read, "it's the story stupid!" It helps if it's well lit, well composed, well focused and up to date with the latest trends but all we've really got to offer, all that people really want to see, is the story in the picture. I started telling my oldest son when he was just an infant that if he could learn to tell stories well he could rule the world. I stand by that and the camera is one of the best story telling devices ever invented.
If you have clients they aren't paying you for a picture, they are paying you to tell their story. It doesn't matter if it's a product or a person, all of that gear and light and knowledge is worthless if you fail to tell that story. You will take a portrait of some people that want you to tell the story of how tough they are. Others want you to tell the story of what a great mom they are, how much fun you could have if you only knew them better, or that they are an amazing athlete. A client may want you to tell the story of what their product can do for the viewer, what their company has done for the planet or a thousand other things that can all be said in a glance if the image is right. Make sure you have a very firm grasp on that story before you think about anything else.
Be flexible. The story will probably evolve during the shoot but you can't throw enough light at a dim starting concept to make it brilliant in the end.
Can I be straight with you? I'm kind of tired of the story I keep seeing repeated in a thousand different portfolios every day. I'm kind of tired of seeing it in mine. The story goes something like this, "hi, I'm another well lit subject sitting in front of another brilliant photographer who doesn't know my name but who wants me to tell you that he's got something important to say."
I'm pretty sure that's where the "beautifully boring" thing that all creatives hate but find themselves flirting with from time to time comes from. I think the answer is to forget all of the gear for a while and go back to that first step, learning to tell a good story. Study good stories by others. Ask a lot of questions. Figure out the story you want to tell. Write it down. Build a scene. Is this a dark story or a bright story? Add some light and see if the story gets better. Where do the shadows belong in this story?
Tweak it. Make it better. Get it? It's the story stupid! (nothing personal, it's just a sign) Wink!