Even though we usually highlight amateur photographers in this feature, I thought it would be helpful to have Paul Marotta, who judges many of our RAW monthly contests, talk about how he moved into the professional ranks and give us all some photo tips. You can see a sample of his work in a gallery linked at the end of this entry. To see his work in person, visit the Artful Heart Gallery in Arlington or Workbar in Boston.
By Paul Marotta
Perfect Bokeh Photography, Arlington
Can anyone ever be thankful to have been let go from an executive position during the economic downturn? Would someone deliberately undertake building a photography career at this stage of life? These are questions I wouldn't begin to presume to answer for anyone else, and at times I'm not sure I even have my own answers!
Photography has been an important part of my life since childhood, beginning with the darkroom my dad built for me as a young teenager. I met Ansel Adams in person in high school, and later in life worked on documentaries about James Nachtwey, Sebastiao Salgado, Sally Mann, and Spencer Tunick while at HBO, which only served to confirm my passion. Plus, as a national publicist and communications director at large arts institutions, photography as a means of institutional identity and branding has always been an important part of my communications campaigns.
I've kept a camera in my hands one way or another during the decades of my "other" professional career. Which brings me to my first piece of advice for anyone who wants to launch a career in photography:
1. Shoot and shoot and shoot as much as you can in whatever area you want to specialize in
There are those who say that offering to shoot for free only trains others to hire you for free, but there is a plus side to this: practice. I do very little pro-bono work these days; most, if not all, of my work is fee-based. However, since I love music and theater and performance work, I did a lot of that in the early days of this venture a few years ago. This set is from the 2010 Boston Music Conference for which I volunteered to shoot 8-10 weeks of performances (left).
In this vibrant cultural region, it's not hard to find a small local performing arts group that would be more than glad to have you shoot for credit. And that's important because theatre work and performance settings can be extremely difficult, lighting can be poor or inconsistent, and access can be limited.
Which brings me to my second "batch" of advice:
2. Learn the technical parts of the job
In theatre, for example, actors tend to move all across the stage, and unless you've seen a blocking rehearsal and have taken notes, you'll have no idea where people will land at any given moment. And the lighting will change - both color and intensity - exceedingly frequently.
I shoot with pretty much just two lenses on my Nikon D700: a 24-70 F2.8D and a 70-200 F2.8 VRII, both on a monopod for maximum sharpness. The challenge will be the 2-5 F-stop difference between the facial skin tones and everything else around them, so I always spot meter in the camera and ALWAYS shoot manual exposure so I can get maximum shutter speed while adapting frequently with thumb and forefinger for shutter and aperture!
For white balance, I typically shoot in Auto mode, pretty much the only time I do, as I get a narrower range of "mistakes" since stage lighting can be so complex and vary so much. Here is some recent theatre work, including the ArtsEmerson production of Robbie McCauley's "Sugar" (above).
3. Vary your genres
Specialties are great, but in the photography business, that can be extremely limiting to the point where one can have no work at all for months at a time.
I've built my photo work on a wide variety of photo genres. I'm a curator for Getty Images Worldwide; I have photos in stock collections at National Geographic and Getty, among others; I shoot a lot of events for organizations in the region; I love doing studio work, especially with executives, families, and pets; I am now also shooting as a contributor and stringer for a national photo news service; I have my work hanging in the Artful Heart Gallery in Arlington and Workbar in Boston; I've done several art shows, and, of course, I have the theatre work I do for the Huntington Theatre Company and ArtsEmerson, among others.
I've included some examples of some of the fine art work I have hanging in galleries at the moment in the slide show here. What always seems to generate the most amount of conversation are the textured overlay pieces of the decaying barns I found one fall in upstate New York near the Canadian border. The process of overlays in Photoshop is both technically easy and aesthetically complex. Finding and creating and merging the overlays is easy, but getting the right one and adjusting its density so that the end result doesn't look like mud is where the art of it lays, I think.
4. Learn and use Photoshop
Expensive, I know, but so well worth it. I shoot mostly in RAW, then edit, convert to jpeg, and edit some more. The tools in PS are astounding and overwhelming all at once, so take a class if you can; it will be well worth the time and cash expenditure.
5. Have a good computer and monitor
A good computer with both speed and processing power is important, but a really good monitor that's been color-calibrated is essential. The variances between what your eye sees directly in real time, what you see in the viewfinder, what you then see on the camera's LCD screen, what the camera sensor sees, and what you'll eventually see on the monitor, as well as making prints or files for publication, can be so vastly different that getting the monitor right first is key. I use Spyder 3 by Datacolor.
6. Shoot cleanly and clearly
Another very critical piece of advice which I think also helps tie all this together is something I learned from a news photographer friend and colleague in Philadelphia some years ago: Shoot as neutral as you can in the camera with as few "adjustments" as possible.
Do not use any of the color enhancement features in the camera and save the editing for your color-calibrated monitor and PS. There you can edit without doing anything destructive to the image such as creating noise and the dreaded jpeg artifacts or excessively muddy dark areas and overblown highlights or unnatural / unintended color exaggerations.
Ultimately, your goal should be to shoot as clean and clear as possible, whether it's event coverage, studio work, fine art work, performance work, or family portraits.
7. Enter contests contests contests
Magazines, institutions, cities and towns, and more have contests. I think it's a great idea to enter contests. It's great exposure, and sometimes there are even cash awards to go along with this.
8. Attend photo meet-ups
Boston has several such groups, including ones that have virtual hangouts on Flickr and also meet every couple months for shooting expeditions. This is a great way to see what others are doing in person, talk about gear and shooting techniques, and even get to some unusual and fun places to shoot new work in challenging situations.
9. Market yourself
And lastly, as so many other featured photographers here have already discussed at length, marketing is critical. Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, MySpace and more: you should have a presence on as many of these as you can handle with regular updates and work samples. Put your portfolio and publication samples up online on Flickr and on your own website as well.
It takes time, effort, and energy as well as a gregarious personality to build a photo career and business; it is a social undertaking, after all. As a nationally renowned arts marketing expert once said, "If you don't ask, you don't get."
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