creativity

VSCO Open Studio

How frickin’ cool:

We know how expensive it is to rent studio space, and that it can be especially difficult to justify the price when it’s for your own passion project. But if it’s a project that excites you, that drags you out of bed at the crack of dawn and keeps you up late at night, we want to give you the opportunity to create it.

BYO camera? Free?

Not many excuses now to not do that thing you want to do, New Yorkers.

Kudos to VSCO. They’re providing platform after platform for photographers (and “”creatives””) to do their thing. It’s fun to see them stretch and grow beyond film-looking presets for Lightroom (that I still enjoy and use).

I’d give anything for a space like this in my area. My next project is dying for a location to shoot some portraits. I don’t need equipment – just space.

 


While There’s Still Time

Go make something beautiful.

There’s so much ugliness on display in the world lately.

Our oceans are dying. Our neighbors and protectors are dying. Political compromise is dying. Common sense seems to be dying.

It’s enough to make you think about building that bunker out in the backyard and waiting the whole thing out.

Artists, musicians, religious leaders, and poets will help us try to make sense of it all, over time. In the meantime, there are photographers on the front lines of these terrible events, witnessing first-hand the terrible things that humans do to each other.

As they’re doing that, try to get out and capture something beautiful, while there’s still time. While it’s still there.


On Switching Gears

Switching Gears

Here’s what I used to do with my free time:

I’d take an old Macintosh, either from eBay or an e-waste drive, plug it in, fire it up, and fix whatever was wrong.

I’d add RAM, or install a new PRAM battery. I’d clean out the vents and get the gunk off the keyboard. Make sure the mouse worked. Install the latest version of the operating system. Try out a different hard drive.

This went on for three or four years. Take a random Friday night, put on The Verve Pipe’s Villains, grab a six pack, and tinker. And then I’d write about it.

I loved it.

And then I walked away.

In its place, I picked up a new hobby, and slowly let the former one slip into the past, like Saturday morning cartoons or homecoming dances.

This happens to lots of us. Often, several times during our lives. Maybe we outgrow our hobbies after a while, or situations change in life. We get married, start families, switch jobs. Our priorities change.

I used to feel bad about leaving my Mac hobby behind. I still love tinkering, and I still play with my old PowerMac and Newtons.

But just like I left behind playing Magic: The Gathering, and staying up late trying to beat Super Mario Bros. 3, I switched gears.

It’s okay to try on new things, and leave old things behind. Maybe photography won’t be “my thing” forever, and that’s fine, too.

There are plenty of hobbies out there.


On Audiences

 

On Audiences

When I finished my Artists In Jackson portrait project, I wrote a lengthy piece on some lessons I learned from the work. Part of that, “Thinking About Your Audience,” was a reflection on how I think about who’s going to care about what I make:

If you’re well-connected and well-known, this may not be such an issue for you. Your art may already have an audience. But if you’re a first-timer like me, this audience stuff matters. I didn’t want to make something and have it flop.

In other words, who do I hope sees this?

Now, that doesn’t affect the actual portraits I make. Those are all mine, with no thought on what’s “marketable.” Style, subject, composition – that’s all me.

But when I bundle all these things together, I do think about who will be interested. When I’m done, who do I send this to first?

Part of me feels like a “sellout” for thinking that way. After all, should it matter who sees what I make? Who cares if it’s “marketable?”

For one: me. And for two: Many of my projects have a community focus. If I’m highlighting local artists, say, or people with fun hobbies, then I want to make sure those people are recognized by their communities, big or small.

I get some benefit out of that, sure. But so do the people I showcase. “Here,” the project says, “look at these folks who are just like you and do something interesting.”

For the portrait project, my audience was both my hometown and the artistic community within Jackson. For my Albion Anagama documentary, the audience was the Albion community and the ceramics community, plus alumni from Albion College.

Yes, the stuff I make matters to me, first and foremost.

In second place is the audience.


“You should bring something into the world that wasn’t in the world before. It doesn’t matter what that is. It doesn’t matter if it’s a table or a film or gardening — everyone should create. You should do something, then sit back and say, “I did that.”

– Ricky Gervais  (via thatkindofwoman)

Basically my every day. 


Portrait Editing in Lightroom

Just for fun, here’s a behind-the-scenes portrait editing session in Lightroom I put together using a photo from my Artists In Jackson project, featuring painter Colleen Peterson.

This is a simplified editing process, but I don’t spend a ton of time on each photo. I have my process down pretty well.

Contrast, exposure, sharpening, and VSCO. Just that simple.

Enjoy!


Lessons Learned from Artists In Jackson

Artists In Jackson

Now that I’m a few weeks removed from launching my portrait project, Artists In Jackson, I thought it’d be helpful to share a few thoughts on the process – maybe for others thinking about tackling a self-published photo book.

I broke this down into sections, because there is a lot to think about and digest.

To Self Publish or Not To Self Publish

This one was easy for me: self publish!

It’s so easy these days to make and publish a photo book. There are vendors begging you to print with them. I get coupons all the time – 25% off, 75% off, a free book print to try out, etc.

My project was design- and text-intensive, so I needed a specific vendor to get my book finished. But if you just want to make a photo book, there are tons of options. If you have a Macintosh computer, Apple bundles Photos and a book-printing option as a default. VSCO has a super nice (and pricey) option. There’s My Publisher, MPix, Pinhole Press, and Blurb (my option).

You could go the professional publishing route, but chance are, if you’re reading this, that whole world is a mystery to you, too. And besides, who wants a box full of books gathering dust in their basement? Print on demand!

Print On Demand (Kind Of)

Speaking of which, I highly recommend print-on-demand services to keep costs and risk low. To a point.

Print-on-demand publishing means someone goes to a website or storefront and orders your book, and then it gets printed and shipped to them. This avoids the basement-book scenario. You don’t have to worry about inventory or unsold merchandise.

Now, I did it kind of half and half. I wanted an initial small press run of books delivered to me because I wanted to sign and customize them for the first batch of supporters. This involved a small bit of risk, because if I couldn’t sell that complete set of printed books, I’m stuck with the entire bill.

I had enough confidence to buy the initial batch, however, and once that runs out, I will send customers to the Blurb storefront to buy their on-demand copy.

Think of it as offering something special for your die-hard supporters, while still keeping the risk manageable. And through a service like Blurb, you can sell your book through Amazon, potential increasing your audience size.

Thinking About Your Audience

Who are you aiming for? What’s your customer base? Who would buy this thing you’re going to make? Who’s going to care?

It could be the marketing/communications professional in me, but one of the first things I thought about was my audience. I knew that if I photographed a large enough number of artists I could grow my audience base. How? Artists have friends and family, spouses, proud grandmothers, co-workers, etc. Each artist will tell their fan base, and word will spread.

Also, because my project was so community focused, the Jackson community itself became a target audience. If you care about Jackson, or you care about the arts community, you’re a potentially-interested person.

If you’re well-connected and well-known, this may not be such an issue for you. Your art may already have an audience. But if you’re a first-timer like me, this audience stuff matters. I didn’t want to make something and have it flop.

It also doesn’t decrease your artsy-ness by thinking about this kind of thing. If you make something great, and no one knows about it, and you want it to reach people, have you succeeded or failed? Or somewhere in between?

My project had a goal (increase awareness about artistic talent in our community), and so it had to have an audience that cared.

The M-Word

Marketing. I’ll start by saying that whether you like it or not, if you want your work to reach an audience, you have to have a bit of marketing involved. Sometimes, you have to be a megaphone.

For me, my marketing plan was comprehensive and multi-channeled. I used the website, Facebook, social media, email, and personal outreach to get the word out about Artists In Jackson. From there, the network effect kicked in. I had 15 artists who helped me reach a larger audience, and the artistic community took their message and spread it even farther.

I set it up in stages. First, I teased the project with a launch page and an email sign-up form. The artists knew what I was doing, but no one else did, so there was some mystery involved.

Then I published the About page on the website, and sent people there. “Look!” I said. “I have a project that I’m finishing up, and here are the basics!” That’s when the social media part came into play – I had something I could point to and share.

The landing page and about page helped me gather email addresses for my mailing list. These folks were the die-hards, the special ones, who bought in to the project. They got weekly updates from me, with little sneak peeks of the book’s progress.

From there, I published the Meet the Artists page to announce who was in the project. Now people could see faces attached to this project. I did this a week before the book launch to get people really talking. It helped with awareness, because this is the stage where the artists could kick their promotional messages into high gear.

And then it was a slow, steady rollout of the products: book pre-sale, book general public sale, eBook pre-sale, eBook general sale, magazine pre-sale, etc. This gave me a month of weekly promotional messages that gave people a specific way of supporting the project. The book begat the eBook begat the magazine. Boom, boom, boom.

I’ll add that groups like the local arts and cultural alliance and the chamber got word of the project and used their communication channels to talk about it. On and on it went, and the audience grew.

Why An Ebook and A Magazine

Easy: Affordability, and access. Not everyone can afford an $89 art book, so the magazine was a way for people to still enjoy a physical piece and saving some money.

It was a pain to layout the magazine. The size was different than the book, and it makes you reformat the pagination and design. But luckily the hard work – writing the stories, sizing the photos, etc. – was already done when I finished the book.

For the eBook, it was more of a way to experiment with the format. I had a chance to play with the iBook Store (and learn all its peculiarities and rules), which will help me on future projects. And I wanted a portable format for those on-the-go tablet folks.

As a multimedia professional, it just made sense to have different formats for Artists In Jackson. It increased the workload, yes, but I feel like it increased the audience size, too. Call it democratic self publishing.

Inventory and Mailing

My fear, as stated above, was that my basement would become a warehouse for these books. So while I split the difference and ordered some inventory, I kept it manageable.

The United States Postal Service (USPS) helped things by offering free mailing supplies (did you know?) and a great online service to order postage labels. It reminded me of the old days on eBay where you had to become a mailing service expert to move your merchandise.

I ordered 20 padded envelopes (free!) from USPS, and when a book order came in I’d buy a postage label, print it out, stuff the envelope with the book, and slap the label on. I’m lucky in that we have a post office here on the campus where I work, so I could just drop off the packages whenever I wanted.

USPS makes it easy to research shipping costs, too, so you know how much to charge your customers. This was vital – I had no idea what postage would be until I looked it up. Free envelopes, calculate the shipping, and send away. Really easy stuff.

Why USPS and not, say, FedEx? It’s totally political. I think our mail system should be run by the federal government, and I try to support the postage system – flawed and unfriendly as it may be – whenever I can.

Online Store

This was a fun part because I had the right e-commerce site. Gumroad is great to work with, and I got their name from @bleeblu after purchasing his eBook. Their markup is very reasonable, and I love the stats and metrics they offer. It became kind of addicting to see a new email from Gumroad pop into my inbox, telling me I just sold another book. It was very helpful to see where my sales came from (website? email? social media?), too.

For the eBook, Gumroad did all the hosting and handled all the downloading. They also make sending mail tracking numbers and receipts super easy. Gumroad is really made for digital goods, but I found they handled physical goods just as well.

For individual photo prints, I use Society6. They take care of all the printing and shipping, and I get to set my profit amount for each print. I don’t make much from prints, but I wanted to offer them to family members and the artists at an affordable price.

After my initial 25 book order runs out, I’m going to switch my online store to Blurb’s version. It’s not the prettiest, but it will serve my needs for those print-on-demand orders.

And everything – the project, the stores, everything – is hosted with grace and beauty by Squarespace. I can’t recommend them enough for creative projects and professionals.

What’s Next

Next, I’m focusing on getting the word out about the project, either through media outlets or art blogs. This is a step-by-step, methodical process: emailing contacts, submitting press releases, knowing who to get a hold of, etc. But I enjoy the work.

I’m also chatting with folks about hosting some events in town to bring the art and artists together. This area is totally out of my comfort zone. I am not an event organizer.

So I pulled in a few of the artists from the project who are experience in events (Hi, Kaiti and Colleen) to help me think through the logistics. Where to have it? Who to invite? Sell tickets? Have food? How to promote? Etc.

I’m also thinking about some speaking engagements, through local service clubs and the museum, to give some backstory on the project.

The big rush at the end of this year is to get the book in people’s hands and get the word out. In 2016, I’ll be focusing on the social and event aspects of the project.

Final Thoughts

Finally, the project was super fun, and a ton of work. It’s not just the photographing and interviewing that takes time. It’s the writing the profiles, editing the photos, sizing them according to the media, building the website, developing the marketing plan, designing the book – on and on. It was five solid months of hard work and late nights.

But. I’m super proud of how it turned out, and the feedback and support has been great. It’s also fun for me to do this stuff.

I tend to be risk-averse, both financially and in life. I didn’t want to go into this project blind and blow a bunch of money on something that I can’t recoup. Yes, risk is a part of any artistic project, but my ability to tolerate risk is low. So at every step in the project, I made sure that there would be creative and financial payoff.

At the least, I just wanted to cover my costs. This was not a money-making scheme. Far from it. If I calculated the time put in to the payout, I’m probably in the red.

That’s what a hobby is, though. It’s a big time and money sink that’s worth all of that as long as you enjoy yourself. With Artists In Jackson, I had the satisfaction of knowing that not only was I exercising my photography muscles, but I was doing something worthwhile for the community.

And I wouldn’t go broke doing it.


On Processing Photos

I did this a while back on portraits, but here’s a little behind-the-scenes on how I process my photos in Lightroom.

Let’s take a photo from the Heidelberg Project in Detroit – blending a few favorite subjects of mine: an abandoned house, public art in an urban setting, good mix of light and deep shadows.

Here’s a before and after. The photo was captured with a Canon 7D and 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma lens. The framing of the brick pillar and the burned black ceiling, with the shaft of light streaming down the stairs, made for an interesting scene.

I start with exposure. Is the frame too dark? Too bright? How about white balance. After adjusting those in Lightroom, I pick my VSCO present. These days, it’s Film 05′s Kodak Ektar 100. That particular film setting has a lot of options, but I usually stick with the default, or play with the Contrast+ setting.

I like Ektar because of its high-contrast, green-tinted-shadows look. It’s not afraid to let the shadows go completely to black, and it’s a warmer film tone. But that’s just the start.

From there I’ll probably add a bit more punch in the contrast setting, drop the highlights a bit to let more detail in the bright spots, and drop the blacks down to give it that really contrasty look. Shadows are my friend.

Depending on the image, I’ll also reduce the saturation a bit. Adding contrast makes the colors pop a bit too much for my liking (those shoes might be a bit too blue for my taste).

Increase the sharpening a tad (usually to the 30 mark, with some masking to only sharpen the edges), maybe bump the clarity (only for non-people photos), and increase the color noise reduction if I have to. Peeking at the shadows and dark spots in the photos lets me know if there is color noise.

Hit the “Remove Chromatic Aberration” toggle if I need to, and do any kind of lens or perspective corrections if I have to. And then I’ll add a bit of a vignette and, especially for VSCO film packs, reduce the grain level. My settings rarely have grain going anywhere above 20-30.

As a last touch, I’ll sharpen little details with the adjustment brush, spot remove anything that seems out of place, and crop a bit.

That’s it. Nothing complicated or fussy. I’ll spend a very short amount of time on a photo, and bring it into Photoshop to do any kind of heavy lifting. Getting it most of the way there in camera is the important part, allowing me to make the styling adjustments as needed.

Questions? Give me a shout.