photography (and other observations) by John Matthews

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Put Yourself Out There

Coffee JouliesIn late 2011 I had the opportunity do product shots for Coffee Joulies as they prepared for their global product launch. This was my first attempt at product photography. While not perfect, I was happy with the final result.

You have no better time than the present to put yourself out there and get noticed. There has been no better time in history to have an idea or service and have available infrastructure to share it. Twitter, G+, Facebook, Pinterest, Medium, Exposure, Wordpress, the list goes on. If you have a good idea, you have a hundred different ways to get it out to the world. So what's stopping you? What's your excuse? Identify it and eliminate it. Break through and do something different. You will be amazed at what can happen.

In the summer of 2011 I was just discovering Kickstarter, a popular crowd funding website. One of the first stories that caught my attention was that of Coffee Joulies. Coffee Joulies are these stainless steel bean shaped objects filled with a phase change material that cools your hot beverage quickly to a drinkable temperature and then maintains that temperature for several hours. Dave Petrillo and Dave Jackson originally started their project seeking $9,500. They wound up raising over $300,000. It was, at the time, one of Kickstarter's most successful campaigns.

To my surprise the Joulies guys were setting up shop right near where I live in Upstate NY. Because Joulies were a hollow, stainless steel, object they needed to find a manufacturing facility that could produce it. They discovered an old flatware factory in Sherrill, NY which had the required equipment to make such a metal shape. Their story was even more interesting to me when I found out they were going to be local. I followed their Facebook page and one day saw the following post:

A dozen or so folks replied to their 'want ad' on their page either stating that they were a photographer or that they knew a photographer. None tried to really do anything to differentiate themselves, though. I decided to send an email:

It was a shot in the dark and I tried to express that I had some unique ideas, albeit pretty simple, about how we could approach a potential product photo shoot. I didn't have anything to lose, so I sent the email and forgot about it. It was about 6 weeks until I got the following reply:

I got the gig! And my first 'real' photo job at that. By 'real' photo job, I mean that I created this opportunity from scratch. It wasn't a job through a friend or organization, this was just me putting myself out there to see what would happen. As it turns out, Dave & Dave (the Joulies guys) were in two-minute warning mode. The holiday shopping season was going to begin in only a couple of weeks and they needed product images for their website and packaging. They'd gotten a ton of publicity via their Kickstarter campaign and they were busy setting up the manufacturing facility getting ready to ramp up production. They had a lot of problems to solve in a short period of time. I drove out to their factory the next day, got a tour, and they gave me a box of product that included the Joulies themselves, a couple different branded travel mugs, and some instruction materials. My job was to take shots of the Joulies against a white background in several different configurations. Joulies by themselves, Joulies in the box packaging, Joulies next to the travel mugs. Any combination I could think of, I was asked to shoot. We agreed on a per photo rate (something I later realized was not the way to go). Simple right?  Well, not exactly.  I didn't have a solid white background available, or lighting. I immediately went to a local camera shop and talked with the owner, who I knew, and I explained the situation. He knew I was now in a red zone myself and understood that this was my first attempt at something like this. He pointed me to a light tent, which is simply a large expandable translucent box covered in white material. You put your lights all around it and it fills with great ambient light that casts minimal shadows. He told me to take it, no charge. "Just bring it back when you're done," he said. I couldn't believe his generosity, but took him up on his offer and went home with the first piece of gear I needed for this job. Next I needed lights. I went to the local hardware store and bought a few of the brightest natural white lights I could find. I would later find out that these were greatly underpowered and I'd have to do a lot of editing in Lightroom work to get the images to where they needed to be. But I had lights. So I went home and set up the light tent on my dining room table, grabbed any table lamp I could find and set up my D7000 on a tripod and began what turned out to be one of the most challenging photo sessions I'd ever attempted. Not only was I required to shoot against the white background, but the objects being photographed were highly reflective and mirror-like. I had to shoot in such a way that I and my camera gear was not visible in the objects being shot. This was turning into something much more difficult than I had imagined. 

But I spent most of the night learning what worked and what didn't and making a lot of mistakes in the process and got my first round of shots captured and edited. I sent them off to the Joulies guys and asked for their feedback. 

What!? Wired.com?! Times Square?! I was really excited to hear that news. I thought I was just shooting them for their website. I had no idea going into this project that what I was shooting in my dining room would ever make it into Times Square.  In a matter of just a few weeks, I'd gone from doing nothing, to doing a bona fide photo shoot for a hot new product that was going to be distributed world wide. Had I not sent that email, had I not put myself out there, I'd have not had what turned out to be one of the most educational photographic experiences I have had. I was forced to determine my job rate, figure out how I wanted to price it out, and most importantly, I figured out how to shoot a very difficult product. For a first effort of this kind, I was extremely pleased and proud of myself.  The Joulies guys later referred me to the owner of Liberty Table Top flatware, the main company in their manufacturing facility and I wound up getting a nice paid job there to take new product shots of their entire flatware line for their website. Of course, it was more highly reflective silver objects to shoot, but I was now prepared! That job allowed me to buy a bigger light tent and some brighter lights so the workflow was a bit easier as well, but still a ton of work involved with product set up. I'll post about that job another day.

The lesson learned here was to simply put yourself out there. I can now say I was a photographer for one of the most successful Kickstarter projects of 2011 and my photographs have appeared on Wired.com and in Times Square. Pretty awesome! You never know what a job will turn out being or where it will lead, but if you don't try you'll never move forward. Oh, and always ask your client to be a reference!

Big Barber is Watching

Photography is something that I'm passionate about, but it's really interesting how there is a huge ebb and flow to my ability to maintain a groove with it at times. I am usually hyper perceptive about my surroundings when I'm in a photographic state of mind. I'm looking at everything, trying to frame it in my mind in a dozen different ways. I love seeing what no one else does. Capturing it is a bonus. Perhaps it's temporary burnout, but these streaks of peak creativity never seem to last as long as I'd expect them to. There are days when I'll click a couple hundred frames, then there are weeks I don't press the shutter once. I've tried to figure it out, but really can't come up with a solid reason why that's the case. So this year I'm going to try to do an edit a day, no matter the time, place, or weather. I'm finding that writing is something I don't do enough of either, and it's easy to only be able to communicate in blurbs 140 characters or less if that's what you do every day.

Tonight I took a walk around the village of Clinton looking for something that would catch my eye. Clinton is an historic village in Upstate New York and is about as Americana as you can get in this area. There is a quaint row of businesses along a central Village Green. It's the home of Hamilton College and has a rich history dating back to the mid 1700's. With its rich history, you'd think there would be a lot to photograph, and truly there is. Tonight's challenge was that it was dark and extremely cold. We're talking 1°F cold. Colder with the wind chill. So not only was it a challenge to find something bright enough to photograph, it was tough to motivate myself to go outside to begin with! But I told myself I'd try to get at least something that was more than a snapshot of a park bench or a window scene. I wanted to find something that made me think when I looked at it. I wanted to find an image that would evoke just a little bit of curiosity or wonder.   This is what I came home with. First shot is out of camera (OOC), 2nd is my edit. 

OOC:

Edit:

For gear, tonight (and I'm finding most days lately) my go to camera is the Fuji x100S. I definitely was pushing the limits with my settings tonight, this image came in at 1/25 sec at f/2.8 ISO 6400. For my editing my go to platform has been the NIK suite of editing programs. NIK was recently acquired by Google and what was a $500+ software package is now available for less than $150 with a discount code (available periodically). It's a solid suite of software and I do the majority of my editing in it after I get a basic crop established in Lightroom 5. For this edit I did a pass through NIK Dfine 2 for noise reduction, then exported to NIK Color Efex Pro 4 and used the maximum depth filter which highlights the center of the image. I then exported to Silver Efex Pro and tweaked using a filter using a high level of contrast and structure for the final black and white image.

Is this an award winning photograph? Of course not. But the exercise for me tonight was to find something that was interesting in not so friendly weather conditions and try to come back with a shot that made me ask myself a question when I looked at it. What happened to this barber that caused him to put in a security camera? It's also a nice shot that juxtaposes old time charm with new technology. To me, this this photo represents a small example of how the little village that I consider to be a place where you can leave your back door unlocked at night might not be so safe after all.  I really enjoyed going through this simple process tonight and I'm looking forward to things ramping up over the course of the year.

Would be interested in your comments!

-jcm