Old School Meets New School. Getting an edge:

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by Barry Howell: I have been a professional photographer since the early 80′s and am in the throws of embracing change like I never could have imagined. I have photographed hundreds of weddings and thousands of high school seniors. I was honored with the first ever Haga Wedding Album award for the best wedding album in Minnesota, and have entered many competition prints over the years. I began shooting weddings for a couple of studios, worked part time on my own for several years, and bought a very large studio operation in 1995.   My first digital camera was a Fuji S2 and that is where my journey into the digital world really began. A good friend (and former employee) encouraged me to take a look at Lightroom and then Gavin Seim’s presets from Seim Effects.

My years of experience (and significant volume) causes me to very careful how much “post production” we commit to. Having studied with the likes of Monte Zucker, Frank Cricchio  Don Blair, David Ziser and others, I learned to produce near perfect images in the camera. There just wasn’t much editing we could do with our C-41 in-house lab printing from medium format Hasselblad negatives. I am the “techie” guy that loves everything shiny, new and cool, but I didn’t jump into digital until I felt the cameras and output options rivaled film quality.  My journey from film to digital has been a long and at times very frustrating path. If you are just starting out (i.e. have never shot a roll of film-I know you’re out there), appreciate my story and be glad you can develop a workflow without  transitioning from anything else. Take the time to think about ways you can do it right from image capture to customer delivery.

Can you imagine doing vignettes, soft focus, precise highlight/shadow control, exposures (that if not correct, couldn’t be fixed later) all in the camera for every frame you shot?  That’s what we had to do with film and I have carried this approach forward with how I capture my digital images.  I am a big believer in the Photovision Exposure Target by Ed Pierce.  I try to use the maximum dynamic range my camera provides to give me the best balance of exposure, contrast and detail possible.  The most frustrating aspect of “post production” for me was that it seemed really difficult to develop any consistency from session to session let alone image to image.  Lightroom presets will help you develop some consistency and a more efficient workflow.  Any image I can edit without having to roundtrip through Photoshop is a huge bonus for me. I still need Photoshop, but will continue to use it only when needed to do the polishing work Lightroom and Aperture just can’t do at this point.

I played with a random batch of about 120 images in preparation for some focus groups with area High School Juniors and Seniors.  I was amazed at how quickly I was able to find presets that really made my images come to life.   Gavin’s presets were logically organized and labeled so it was really easy to experiment with lots of different treatments and effects.  The feedback we are gathering from these focus groups will no doubt be shared in a future podcast. Surprisingly a few “trendy effects” aren’t resonating like I would have thought.   My own nephew and his bride have expressed a strong preference for “a more traditional, film like look” and frankly don’t like the jacked up color, contrast and effects.  Remember, it doesn’t matter what we like, it’s what the client likes that matters. I have found the following presets to be really great:

Lightroom Default – Creative Aged Photo,  SCF (Seim Color Fantasies) Simple Vignette, SCF Magical Lomo, SCF Catwalk, SCF Morning Coffee,  Seim Effects Dark Vignette. Also grain in LR3 (of course the film guy likes the grain)

Dennis Zerwas (ProPhotoShow contributor) gave me a few Lightroom tips before I edited a January wedding (using LR3 Beta).  I have been a long time Aperture user, so all this new fangled LR stuff got me really excited and the more I worked with it, the more I liked it!  I had been using Lightroom for some of my images, and we use it for all our production work in the lab, we just hadn’t done much with presets before now.

On the last Podcast, the statement was made that pretty much every file that comes off today’s digital cameras looks dull.  While I can’t imagine being able to tweak every file of everything I shoot (over 90,000 actuation’s on my main camera in 21 months)  I will admit, there is some real truth to that statement.  ”Upon further review”, I looked back at a number of my images and it hit me;  I haven’t let my clients see the finished product, until they pick up and pay for the order.  Hmmm,  what kind of first impression have my images been making in this digital era to my clients, their families and friends?   You and I know how much we can pop the color, tweak the contrast, boost this, fix that… makes perfect sense to me.  Are my customers able to have such vision?  No chance.

Take a quick stroll through the images which show both a before and after examples of what I produced.  The comparisons range from wow, to shocking, to maybe a bit too much, but bottom line, there is no question that that well executed post production is becoming a very important skill set to acquire in this brutal competitive marketplace.

One of my favorites was shot in U.P. Michigan of an old abandoned building.  The cool old wood door and red bricks with the apron of snow was an amazing scene and looked great in the camera, but after a little Lightroom cooking,  the scene just jumps off the page and will be hanging soon in my newly setup home office (shot in RAW, Canon G9).

In summary, I am more convinced than ever that any of us proclaiming to be “professionals” owe it to our clients and our own artistic stamp on the world to take the extra time to really make our images sing.  If we don’t, we’ll all be out of business letting everyone else just snap away on automatic, delivering fine jpegs on a CD for fifty bucks to our past clients. In a day when “everyone is a photographer”, it takes a lot more than it used to if you want to rise above the competition.  I may come from the “Old School”, but look out, I might just prove that you can teach an old dog a few new tricks.

Technical Data:  Nikon D300, Nikkor 12-24, Nikkor 70-300VR,  55mm Micro-Nikkor 2.8, Manfroto Monopod, 2 or 3 remote Nikon Flashes with Fong Diffusion. Custom WB (with the Ed Pierce exposure target) images shot in RAW. MacBook Pro Adobe  Lightroom 3.0 Beta.

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  • Brian Tanning

    Very nice article Barry!

  • Kristin Wheeler

    Barry,
    This is such a great article. I am a marketing intern at a photography studio and this information is very relevant to everything we have been working on. Good job! I can’t wait for your next article.

  • Dean

    For an old film guy… you’re blazing a pretty nice trail. Keep it up.

  • http://ronnmurrayphoto.com Wow!

    Found this post on Dennis Zerwas’ twitter. Very nice! Thanks for sharing and welcome to wonderful world of LR! Love your images.

  • Chad

    Well said! My dad, like you, is and “old time” photographer, shooting since before I can remember and says alot of the same things. The market for being a “pro” has all but vanaished. Being a recient high school grad, I saw tons of kids with their pictures taken by a friend, or “Digital Debbie” if you will, and frankly the pictures that I saw from these new “modern” photographers was either edited way too much, contrast was too high, ect. or the pictures were right out of the camera burnt onto a disk and printed at target/walmart and honestly looked like trash, poorly frammed ect. I do prefer the more traditional style prints but you’re very right, it’s the consumers that we have to listen to, and there is a fine balence between “modern” and “traditional” and I think that the only people able to do these are the ones who know how hard it was in the past, that can manage there time efficently to keep there post-shooting time down to a min. Awesome pictures!!! They look fantastic and really show that you know what you’re doing. Keep it up!! Looking forward to more posts from you!

  • Joy

    As a professional writer, I very much appreciate the concept of a high-quality first draft. Although re-writing typically makes for a better piece of literature, the re-write is often only as strong as the original’s weakest elements. Today’s photographers and writers can learn from those of us who didn’t have Adobe Lightroom for photos or MS Word for copy (remember typewriters and white out?). Our parents’ recommendation to “do it right the first time” still rings true. The resulting product will be the best, not merely better. I appreciate your old school thinking, Barry. And the photos are terrific!

  • how low can u go?

    That image is horrible, what is it a wax figure?

  • Jennifer Dunham

    Wow Barry this is looking really great! i love the article! i’m really loving the effects! thanks for having my picture number 1 on here :]

  • Phil Thompson

    Barry – careful about using the “Old Dog” label – I went to the same college as you at the same time as you and I can’t quite get used to the “Old Dog” label yet:) – Good stuff – having married into a family whose patriarch was a noted photographer, I grew to appreciate the eye, technique and experience that a great professional photographer brings to a sitting. Your stuff is excellent Barry and if I was a betting man – I’d put my money on “the old dog” any day!

  • GW Powers

    I couldn’t agree more with the premise and content of this article. Tell me when you are speaking or presenting, I’ll travel across the country to learn what I can from your experience and willingness to change is amazing. I’ve read a ton, and looked at photographers work from around the country. You clearly know what you are talking about, and have quite a talent. I loved your website and look forward to more posts from you in the future. P.S. I enjoyed hearing you on the podcast I listened to online a few weeks ago. I am a young photographer who is sick and tired of images that “break all the rules”, and have decided I need to balance today’s really cool technologies with time tested artistry of this craft. Thanks for being willing to share.

  • Chris Arcand

    Well written and completely logical. Nice work.

    Basically, in this world of fancy (but more importantly, cheap and fancy) cameras, when everyone is taking their own shots, you’re going to have to put more emphasis on post production techniques, something the general public does not have a way to handle, or even think about. it’s a balance of your photography skills and vision for the final product which will always (and should always) keep professionals like you in demand.