January Q & A - Part Two

Continuing on from the last post, here are six more questions addressed in the recent Q&A:

mashael (@filmbymashael), 15 minutes after we met

7. How do you direct your clients if you’re shy?

This is something I am all too familiar with. I might not seem like it, but I do deal with a significant amount of anxiety when meeting new people, especially when it comes to photography. I will even avoid taking photography gigs because I am too nervous working with new clients, saying something wrong, directing awkwardly, shooting poor photos, anything like that. I’m terrified of candids, and I don’t want to upset people - especially strangers. 

At a certain point, anxiety and shyness becomes an excuse. This type of work is predicated on interacting with hundreds of strangers over the course of each year. While there is some understanding that we are all nervous in the beginning, it is imperative to reach a point where your nervousness trends downwards. New situations can make anyone feel anxious, regardless of how many years of experience you have, but it takes a determined mindset to want to reach a place where you can handle those feelings swiftly and focus more on your craft. Candids are fair game - if you have a good sense of when it is appropriate to do so.

For controlled shoots, the first step is to meet with your clients in person before the shoot. At some point, we all take on photoshoots where it is impossible to set up communication with all involved parties, but before we get to that point, take time to sit down and familiarize yourself with the client. Create a rapport, set up a production schedule. Hopefully, a significant amount of shyness or awkwardness will dissipate through conversation, the client will appreciate the professional process more, and on-shoot direction will come more easily and naturally. Your actions will come across as trusted suggestions instead of callused orders. If the rapport is strong enough, your clients will be respectful in kind, and the shoot will reflect the mutual comfortability.

budapest, hungary in 2015

8. Any advice on the algorithm and how photographers can grow?

There is no algorithm. That’s the attitude we all need to have.

When I was younger, I bit into the rush of hyper growth as an Instagram photographer, but could not trouble myself with ways to “game the system” - cheap tactics to fluff up my numbers to appear more popular. I just shot a lot. A lot. And posted a lot. A lot.

I do believe good work gets recognized. And that means presenting your work dozens or hundreds of times, only to see a handful of people care about it. Even then, you’re never quite sure - do they care because they find your work compelling or because your work is right on trend? It is a privilege to truly, genuinely, completely entice someone to care about your photography. It is not something you can easily gain by hashtagging, posting your photos at exactly prime time, commenting on random accounts, and other ways that professional social media consultants will tell you are necessary for growth. Success takes time, work, commitment, an evolving artistic vision, and yes, often a lot of luck.

Your work might get completely overshadowed by others. That’s okay! These will be photographers who can dedicate more time to the work, who are gaming the system themselves, or who hit a jackpot attention spike. Another person’s climb to success is independent from your own, and we should all take measures to congratulate and support each other instead of competing with one another. That impossible mountain to climb - where you can complete the work that fulfills you, work that emotionally connects with a growing audience - it’s not actually impossible. Aim for the long run, and work towards your own artistic development and honing in to who your audience really is. If you feel great about a photo and it tanks on Instagram, don’t fret. Maybe it was underdeveloped after all, maybe people didn’t see it, maybe the wrong people saw it. But with enough time, persistence, and tenacity, the right people will catch on, or your current audience will start growing with you. 

There are ways to force “organic” growth, and I can understand the necessity to do so if photography is a business first, not an art. I could help with that, too, but I won’t - the long run matters more. 

directing sobi (@sobi1canobi) and adil (@ophthomus.prime), shot by iqra (@milesfrom)

9. How do you pose couples?

In all seriousness, I’ve shot with Iqra Shahbaz (@milesfrom) enough times that I just sort of follow her around and watch her during shoots, and I’ve learned a bit from her decision making and patience with composing shots.

Couple photos can quickly be reduced to templated, cliched, corny shots if you bank on copying and pasting a pose in any environment. Find out about the couple’s dynamic, what makes them click and ignites any excitement between them. It could be music - put on Bad Bunny and they’ll erupt into a bouncing energy and that does all the work for you. It could be a topic of conversation, and you can shoot them arguing about their favorite MCU movie. Maybe it’s your environment, and the couple will disappear into their own zone as they gaze off, forgetting they’re on a photoshoot. That’s part of the pre-production learning process and comes with building preparation before the shoot.

What I also typically do is shoot before the pose. It takes some set-up for a couple to fully get together in the way you direct, so I’ll shoot them setting up, talking to each other, asking if they’re both good, anything that feels like a proper reflection of the relationship instead of the constructed pose. Most often, I’ll delete the pose and keep that photo instead.

follow up from above photo

10. I’m working with my first client next week, any advice? 

Always, always understand what your client is looking for. Ask a lot of questions, make things clear from the beginning so you aren’t surprised afterwards with confusion and frustration from either end. A photoshoot always feels simple - show up and use a camera. It’s never that simple, and we know it. Sometimes our clients don’t, but it is on us to communicate foreseeable complexities. 

What are those complexities? Sometimes, it’s just a matter of how many photos will be delivered. You might interpret a project needing 12 edited photos and your client will request 250. You might show up and the lighting is negligent. You might have a completely opposite interpretation of the set aesthetic because the location wasn’t shared, your lens is ill-equipped, or a moodboard wasn’t created beforehand.

Most of these solutions come from experience, following unprepared projects that leave bitter tastes in your mouth. An uneducated client is not necessarily a nightmare client, and part of our job is to bring our expertise to expectations - not just execution.  The most important word when it comes to photoshoots: contract. Create a contract that protects you from overdelivering 300 photos, from producing seven rounds of edits, from staying six hours overtime, from releasing RAWs, from receiving pay by given dates, and from asks to see edits before contractually provided deadlines.

Of course, there is also a significant responsibility on you. Yes, there are nightmare clients, and yes, miscommunication can cause unnecessary strife between you and a reasonable client. That does not mean photographers are always right. In situations where I’ve mediated issues between other photographers and their clients, I have just as often taken the sides of the photographer as I have taken the side of the client. There is no home-team advantage here. As professionals, we are expected to deliver a service under reasonable conditions, and our contracts must serve the interests of both photographer and client. Just like with any relationship, find the red flags before you sign your name.

joanna (@boufyy) from the first namaslay shoot

11. How do you find your style? Do you post from every shoot, or are you more selective?

The most recent shoot that I’ve posted was from October 2019 - two other shoots posted afterwards were older photos. I just checked, and since October, I’ve shot something like 8,700 - 8,900 photos. I took a break from Instagram to reset and detox, and also to understand myself better as a photographer. One thing I understood is that I wanted to be more of a personal photographer, and the bulk of those ~9,000 photos are personal photos of my close friends and family. Memories for us first, and maybe Instagram later. I do have four unpublished engagement shoots that are pending, but I want to spend more time presenting work that isn’t just couples. Don’t get me wrong - I love shooting engagements!

It took me years to get to this point. Between 2015 - 2018, I posted frequently, eager to learn photography through consistency and public exposure. I was drawn to portraiture in college. I had an overall attraction to artistic work that captured nuanced, relatable emotions in people that were complete strangers to me. Taking on photography opened up opportunities for me to attempt the same effect - all within the brown community in New York. My work went from experimentation to a display of an underserved community in the photography world, and it help build further purpose, relationships, artistic development, and refinement.

Instagram popped off in late 2017 thanks to Namaslay, and my style sharpened through a combinations of color handling, composition, and mood. I also started enjoying writing more, writing extensively stupid captions that typically layered how I was feeling underneath all the goofy shit I was writing. Do all my captions make sense? To me, they do. Sometimes I’ll just write a thousand words that’s strictly a Simpsons reference, and sometimes I’ll write a thousand words that’s all a joke, but really it’s me commenting on our generation’s flagrant displays of wealth. The best thing I learned about Instagram is that it’s mine to control.It is wonderful to see I can write in a very unfiltered way that (somehow) grabs people’s attention.

I still shoot quite a bit, even when it looks like I’m not. Usually over 50,000 photos a year, which really is such an arbitrary number. Better photographers can shoot 5,000 or less, but for me, it’s how I got to this point - and I’m still only 30% or so where I want to be with my photography acumen. Everything takes time, your style above all else.

tangier, morocco

12. How do you thoughtfully take photos in other countries as an American, if at all? 

This one’s real heavy.

I traveled to Morocco almost two years ago with a group of something like fifteen people. The beginning of the trip opened up a rush of excitement to pop off and shoot rapidly - but after a couple days, we paused, and started having several conversations about the ethics of our behavior. How badly were we appropriating Moroccan culture, and how can we stop treating the locals here as our personal human zoo?

My advice: slow down and properly visit a country. Speak to the people there, learn about the country’s history, and accept yourself as a visitor. Our appropriation conversations gave us significant awareness. Two years later, we have thoughtful photos - they are the photos that still matter to our group, specifically, reflecting on the more substantial moments of the trip. These aren’t grandiose, sweeping landscape photos, or black and white photos of an aging street vendor. They’re photos that allow us to fondly remember the trip instead of accessories that show off what we saw.

I don’t mean to suggest that all vacations should be held as private photos, I would never suggest to withhold posting your vacation photos. But to call a country beautiful after you sped through it taking shots at predetermined locations - this isn’t visiting a country. Nor is it photography. Make your trips count. 

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