Two out of three ain’t bad

One of my favourite photographers, Zack Arias, was discussing a philosophy for whether to take a job. The philosophy wasn’t one that he came up with, but it’s one that he likes.
There are three values; Good money, good people and good work…every job has to hit two of these values before it’s worth doing. The last two months have seen a really big increase in the amount of work I’m doing through my own business, and so suddenly I’ve had to look at my philosophy for doing work, if I can’t do it all, I need to know what to say ‘yes’ to and what to say ‘no’ to.
About a month ago I was approached to do a job with a family friend, Don Palmer. The job was not as a photographer or editor or anything that I was working towards…but more as a location scout and general gopher for the shoot. We were going to be shooting for his organisation Malpa, there was a DOP (cameraman) on the job called Mark Tipple and the talent for the job would be Uncle Jack Charles. The money would be exactly $0.
So I put the philosophy into action:

Good money – Negative…but then again they may simply be getting what they pay for.

Good people – I’ve know Don for nearly 20 years…and Katie has known him her whole life. He’s just a thoroughly decent person who I would happily donate my time to whenever he asks. The DOP (Mark Tipple) is insanely good with both stills and video, and Uncle Jack Charles is well…Uncle Jack Charles.

Good work – The video we were shooting was for indigenous kids who had been chosen to be taught traditional and western medical practices that they could take back to their communities. Which is a pretty amazing cause.
I haven’t worked on a video shoot where people who actually know what they’re doing are in charge for a long time…and I haven’t worked with an actual actor for even longer. Plus, if I bring along my camera there is every chance I’ll be able to get a few photos in between takes.

So no money, but brilliant people and amazing work…I said ‘yes’ to the job.

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Heart vs wallet

Working in a creative field is always a bit weird when it comes to getting paid. I can’t imagine many people would say to their electrician ‘I’ve got this great idea for a house…but I haven’t got any money for it…could you do the electrical work for me, and then everyone will see how great you are as an electrician and so you will get lots of work from referrals?’ But if you do something creative people tend to think that seeing as you’re enjoying yourself, then you probably don’t really need to get paid. After all, they hate their job…that’s why they get paid.

At the same time, a lot of really great projects will simply never get off the ground unless people chip in to help out. So where do you draw the line? If you only go where the money is you will be creatively suffocated…if you only go where the lovely ideas are…you will be out of business within 6-months.

I’m sure you’ve seen this…but it applies nicely to photography and video work as well

So with the beauty of hindsight, did I make the right call?

Pros

I got to watch a really good DOP in action which was a bit like getting a two hour masterclass for free.

Mark Tipple in action...my camera smelled like smoke for a week, so I shudder to think what his smelled like!
Mark Tipple in action…my camera smelled like smoke for a week, so I shudder to think what his smelled like!

I got to watch a world class actor in action. Speaking as someone who spends most of his time filming either politicians or people who are not used to being in front of a camera. It was a revelation to watch someone who can nail a script time and time again, who can read with the pacing, inflection and timing that makes you feel as though they are speaking to you, rather than reading someone else’s words, and who brought so much energy to what he was doing.

Craftsmanship
Craftsmanship

I got to introduce Josh to the world of being on a film-set. There is a weird alchemy that occurs on a film set when the cast and crew are happily working towards the same goal, and Josh got to live that first hand…and meet Uncle Jack Charles who had seen in ‘Pan‘ just the week before.

Not quite sure who is more excited to meet who.
Not quite sure who is more excited to meet who.

I got to take advantage of someone else’s lighting set up and take photos of someone as engaging and enigmatic as Uncle Jack Charles.

Am I devastated that I missed the focus on his eyes...yes, yes I am.
Am I devastated that I missed the focus on his eyes…yes, yes I am.
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Watching Uncle Jack was like witnessing a force of nature. He was relentlessly engaging.

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Cons

I missed swim squad…and suffered like a dog the next week.

Conclusion

The Gillian Welch song ‘Everything is Free‘ (a song about artists giving away their work because “we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”) rebounds in my head every time I’m asked to do a job for nothing. But I would hate to become the sort of person who passes up the opportunity to work on an amazing project like this…and with people like Don, Mark and Uncle Jack.
Some experiences are priceless.

A moment of contemplation
A moment of contemplation

Fitness and photography

A couple years ago I spent 12 months focussing on being more ‘creative’. I spent more time writing, taking photos and making videos…hell, I even took singing lessons. The net result was that I think I became a happier human being. I had a creative outlet (even if the world probably preferred it when I didn’t), my problem solving improved (although admittedly the ‘problem’ was normally someone asking me not to sing…and my ‘solving’ was agreeing and apologising) and I started to see creative options where I hadn’t seen them before. But for the last year and a half I’ve been training for the Ironman (well admittedly I’ve spent the last 2 months basking in the afterglow of having completed the Ironman) and I’ve been amazed at how focusing on keeping yourself physically fit, can have massive benefits for your creative endeavours.

The basics

Granted, the actual act of pressing the button on your camera, looking at the screen on the back, sighing, and then dejectedly deleting the photo, is not all that physically taxing (the emotional and psychological onslaught is of course another thing). So you could argue that increased fitness won’t make a big difference to your photography. But a bit of cardio fitness may have meant you walked a bit further to get a better vantage point, a bit of endurance work may have meant that you carried an additional piece of gear in your bag that helped make the shot and a bit of muscle may have allowed you to elbow your way through the scrum and get the best shot of your daughter’s dance recital (Oh sorry other parents, maybe if you’d spent a little more time at the gym you would be the one taking this awesome shot…instead of rolling around on the floor moaning ‘My nose, my nose…I think you broke my nose!”).

Dr. Who dance-16

Location, location.

While training for the Ironman (and yes I will continue to drop that into conversation wherever possible) I would often head out on 1.5 – 2hr runs. Now don’t get me wrong, running along main roads and having the local bogans loudly question your sexuality as they drive past is pretty awesome. But eventually you will want to get off the beaten track and run somewhere different, and this will open up a world of new photographic locations. Old buildings, new bridges, creeks, graffitied walls, velodromes, rolling hills- you never know what you will find, but you can bet that it’s not something that many other people have used for a photo.

I stumbled across this one morning while out for a run...then scampered back to get my camera.
I stumbled across this one morning while out for a run…then scampered back to get my camera.

The early bird

Do you know what’s awesome for photography? Early morning light, deserted streets, sunrise, frost and that crossover between late night revellers and those who get to work early. Do you know what sucks? Getting up early to take these shots when on any other day you’d still be asleep. But if getting up early is now part of your daily routine (because it’s the only time you can work your fitness regime into your family life or work schedule), then getting up early on another day to take some shots really isn’t that tricky.

Admittedly this photo wasn't taken superearly...but it was early when we started!
Admittedly this photo wasn’t taken superearly…but it was early when we started!

The people you meet

I’m firmly of the opinion that the most important factor in taking a great photo is not your skill level…but being there. A photographer with basic skills who is actually there, is going to take a much better photo than an expert who isn’t. But the problem is, how do you meet people to take photos of? How do you hear about events that would be great to photograph? How do you hear the stories that would translate beautifully to the captured image? In short you have to get out and meet people and do things, and getting involved in a sporting group or club is a great way to do this.
Plus, if you are actually doing an activity, you will have a much better idea of where the best photos are going to be. Everyone is going to be at the finish line, but where will the race be won? Where will the hearts break? Where is the bike most likely to stack? If you are actually doing these activities day to day, you will be able to walk up to any event and have an advantage over the other photographers.

Footjam Nosepick,
Footjam Nosepick,

Confidence

OK, if you’ve made it this far into this post then you’re probably willing to let me get a little tangential. If you are exercising regularly, you will be happier with yourself physically. When you’re happy with yourself physically, this tends to manifest itself in greater self confidence…and you know what is an incredibly powerful tool when trying to convince strangers to let you take their photo? Self confidence. It makes no sense, but I know that for me personally, knowing that I could run 20kms on any given Sunday, gave me the confidence to approach Luke and ask him to pose for a portrait.

Of all the photos, I think this one carries the most weight.
Admittedly he does look a little like he’s regretting agreeing to let me take his photo.

Time to think

If you’ve got kids, or a full-time job, or remarkably persistent cats, you’ll probably find that you don’t have a whole lot of time to think about your photography. But head out for a swim, ride, run or gym  session and you suddenly have time and space to think, although for the  first couple you will just be thinking ‘Christ I hate running!’ and ‘Why am I doing this?!’ and ‘Who the hell put the Wiggles on my playlist?!!’ But eventually you will be able to do the physical side of things on auto-pilot, while you use your newfound firing synapses and endorphins to come up with some stellar ideas.
The best ideas I’ve had for photos, videos and blogs have been while I’ve been out exercising.

Selfish portrait. ISO 400, 17mm, f3.5 and 6sec
Selfish portrait.

In conclusion, your Honour…

Having swung the pendulum between focusing on creativity and focusing on fitness, I have settled on the idea that I need to have a balance of 60% fitness and 40% creativity…with that additional 20% focus on fitness leading to more than a 20% improvement in my creativity. So go out and try find your balance. Before you buy that next bit of gear, buy a a decent pair of runners instead, before you book a photo-tour, go for a run around your local area and see what you find, and instead of putting your head back on the pillow at 5.30am get outside and break out of your comfort zone…your photography will be the better for it.

Creativity…I kinda got me some

At the end 2012 I made the bold decision to focus on being creative for a year…so as I round out the year, I thought I’d have a look to see what worked and what didn’t…and to see if it made any difference to my life.

2 Degrees of Melbourne videos

One of my goals was to shoot and edit some videos of local Melbourne people who I think reflect what a great city Melbourne is. On the plus side, I got three of these done…and I was really happy with them (Andy White, Mick Thomas, Geraldine Quinn). On the downside…I only got three of these done over the course of an entire year, it’s not like I’m creating episodes of Sherlock FFS!
But on the whole I think that this was a triumph for creativity…they pushed me out of my comfort zone in terms of asking relative strangers to come and do something for nothing…and definitely out of my technical comfort zone as I tried to be interviewer, sound guy, camera man, lighting dude and editor, all on very basic equipment. But if the essence of creativity is doing a whole lot of work and not getting paid anything for it, then this was an unparalleled success. Plus I got to have Andy, Mick and Geraldine just hangout for a coffee and chat in our kitchen…and that is freaking priceless.

Singing

Another goal was to get some singing lessons and possibly sing in public. This was also a success. I did singing lessons with the amazing Emily Hayes (if you’re in Melbourne and want to learn to sing I cannot recommend her highly enough) and that lead to joining a choir called the Septemberists (we sang an entire Decemberists album…in September). Getting to rehearse and then perform with a group was an amazing experience, and getting to sing with Katie Hull-Brown and Emily during my singing lessons was again a great opportunity to push myself well beyond my comfort zone. It also got me back to playing a bit of guitar. But most of all it made me realise that there are few sounds more captivating than voices singing in harmony.

Photography

I really wanted to push myself with my photography this year as well. One of my goals was to do a masterclass with Veeral Patel, but my moving house…and his heading off to shoot the Tour de France made it impossible to lock in a time that worked. But I will do this…oh yes, I will do this (or possibly hide myself in his luggage and head over for next year’s tour!) I did manage to do some long exposure photography that I was really happy with,

ISO 400, 28mm, f11 & 30 second exposure
St Kilda pier
ISO 6400, 17mm, f2.8, 30 Seconds
A shack just outside of Foster

and took some portraits that I thought really captured the subject as a person rather than just an image.

Geraldine
Geraldine Quinn

 

I tend to put the lens cap in my mouth when I use the camera...Xavier clearly likes the look
I tend to put the lens cap in my mouth when I use the camera…Xavier clearly likes the look

But at the same time, I didn’t spend nearly enough time using the ‘manual’ setting on the camera…and relied on Lightroom to make the images really work, so there is still a lot of work to be done.
Also, 90% of taking a great photo is actually being there to take the shot…an average photographer who is actually there, has a much better chance of taking a great shot, than a brilliant photographer who isn’t there. So one of my big aims for this year was to get out and about to take more photos. But with three young kids and a house renovation to keep me busy, I only managed to head out for a dedicated photo session 3 times for the year. Which is pretty shitfull…but leaves a lot of room for improvement!

Surprising synergies

Not only was this the title of my highly unsuccessful 2002 business/management book, but it was also one of the big things that my year of creativity taught me; creativity in one area opens up creative options in others. If you go to a gig and ask if you can just stroll up on stage and take a photo, you will most likely be politely told to sod off. But if you’re there to sing…then you have full access to stage and can take shots like this with impunity.

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And if you walk up to Mick Thomas and ask to take a quick portrait shot of him, he may explain that he has better things to do with his time…but if you’ve just filmed an interview with him, he might let you take a shot like this.Mick Thomas-1

And if you shoot a video with Andy, you might be asked to ruin breakfasts around Melbourne by appearing as a page 3 boy in the Sunday Age.

So in conclusion…

While I certainly didn’t dedicate sufficient time to being creative, the benefits I got from the time I did put in were fantastic. My videos and photography for my day job came ahead in leaps and bounds, I got to meet and work with some people who I really admire and I had some experiences that I’ll remember and draw upon for the rest of my life. The challenge will be maintaining it next year when so much of my focus will be on getting physically ready for a tilt at the Melbourne Ironman in 2015…and of course not thinking to myself every time we visit someone out of Melbourne “I wonder if I could get any good photos there”.

The Septemberists choir

Readers of this blog may remember that one of my challenges for this year was to learn to sing. I didn’t have any real intention of performing in public…I just wanted to be able to sing ‘Yankee Bayonet’ with Katie (my wife) when The Decemberists inevitably invited us up on stage to sing with them (admittedly it was not the world’s most realistic plan). But when my singing teacher (the brilliant Emily Hayes) told me she had a friend who was putting together a choir who were going to sing Decemberists’ songs…I knew that the universe had other plans. So I joined the choir.
Now I should stress that ‘So I joined the choir’ wasn’t as simple as that. I’ve agreed to play basketball or cricket games on a whim, and I’ve gone on long bike rides with people who I’d never met but I suspected were a lot fitter than me, and I’ve agreed to MC an event at winery even though I’d never done anything like that before. Because at my very core, I felt that I could do it or at least do a sufficiently decent job that I could fool people in to tolerating my presence. But singing? That was something I really didn’t feel comfortable doing in front of people. Plus I knew from a few people that men who are willing to sing in a choir are pretty thin on the ground…so there was every chance that I would be the only guy singing…which would make it really hard to simply pretend I was singing.

So when Katie I walked into a flat in Thornbury for our first session with the choir, I was pretty comfortable with my plan to fake a phone call and make a run for it if I thought that anyone in the room was going to Linda McCartney me.
But of course these people weren’t there to make fun of me or to delight in my mistakes…these were Decemberists fans! So of course they were wonderfully welcoming an accommodating. Best of all, while the vast majority of choir members were women…there were three other guys!
The choir was the brainchild of Erica Pringle, who had arranged five songs off the Decemberists album ‘The King is Dead’ for choir, and was then teaching us all of the different parts, and being incredibly patient and encouraging…and doing all of this while pregnant (Colin Melloy may be able to do the many of these things…but he hasn’t done any of them while pregnant!)

Tricks for young players

One of the big mistakes I made going in to this was that I thought we would all just be singing the songs as they sound on the album…and this would be fine as I knew those songs inside out. But that’s not how things work in a choir. Sometimes you’re singing the song as the per the album, sometimes you’re singing it with totally different notes as a harmony…and sometimes you’re singing one part one way while another part of the choir is singing it another way. It’s a bit like going to a job interview and having everyone suddenly start talking French half way through…it’s baffling, but it does sound cool.
I also didn’t know whether I was a tenor or a bass. I had narrowed it down to these two (because that’s where the guys were), but I had no idea which one I was…in fact, to be honest I didn’t even realise that there was a difference between the two. Fortunately we had one guy who could sing the tenor part really well and one guy who could sing the bass part really well. So I just applied my years of learning as a child in Church, and copied whoever was closest to me.

The gig

Our weekly Monday night rehearsals soon segued into a performance at an open mic night

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which in turn gave rise to a session in a rehearsal studio

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and then suddenly we were on stage in front of an audience singing, and it was awesome! Yes I hit a couple of notes which were off, and yes I may have sung a few words that have not yet appeared in the English language…but no one noticed because that is the joy of a choir. When you make a mistake it is absorbed…and when you all do it just right, it sounds freaking amazing.

So would I recommend joining a choir? If you can sing, or if you’ve ever wanted to sing…then ‘yes’ you should. There will always be a litany of reasons why you think you can’t do it…but the most rewarding things always do. If nothing else you may find yourself on a Tuesday night in a pub with a beer in your hand having complete strangers coming up and telling you how much they enjoyed your singing.

So while my year of focusing on creativity may have got off to a slow start, I’ve now produced a few videos that I’ve been really proud of, taken some photos that I’m really happy with and performed on stage with a choir…the challenge is now to get even further out of my comfort zone and do something truly memorable.

Sadly I haven’t got any photo of the choir or myself performing (apparently taking selfies mid-song is considered ‘poor form’), but I did get a couple of shots of the other performers on the night.

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Creativity…I want to get me some.

If you’ve ever read the Dr. Seuss story ‘Oh, the places you’ll go!‘ you’ll know about a feared destination called ‘The waiting place’. It’s basically a place where people are waiting for things to happen, a form of limbo if you will…and I think it’s fair to say that 2012 has been pretty much a year of ‘The waiting place’ for me. Waiting for the renovations to be finished, waiting to see if I’ve been successful in applying for my own job, waiting for our eldest child to start going to sleep without 2 hours of coaxing, waiting for our youngest child to just go to sleep, waiting for the chance to get back into exercise, waiting, waiting, waiting.
But the whole point of the ‘Waiting place’ in ‘Oh, the places you’ll go!’ is that’s it’s very easy to get stuck there and wallow in your self pity. If you want to get out, you need to put in some effort. So I have decided to break free of my wallowing, and declare 2013 my year of creativity!

So what the hell does that mean?
Good question. I’ve worked with, and been dazzled by, genuinely creative people, and I do not include myself in their number. When I worked in film and TV I was the Producer or a Production Manager, which is basically a nice way of saying I was kept as far away from the creative process as possible. And with good cause, if there were ever a battle between the chaos and anarchy of creativity and the structure and organisation of order…I will be there with my ‘Hurray for structure’ banner.
However, I have always admired the end result of creativity and have always harboured a desire to be more creative. I love music and film and photography and various other things where people have ignored the beautiful structure of order…and just been creative. The challenge has always been to get involved in the actual process of being creative rather than just admiring what other people do. But this is not easy, because to be truly creative you need to have a singular vision and belief in what you do…which is very tricky to have when you’ve never really done it before.

For all it’s ‘Waiting place’iness, this year has actually been a really good year for me creatively. I’ve started really getting into photography, and I’ve started trying to do new stuff with my video work. But I think I’ve treated it as a pleasant distraction from the more mundane work…rather than something to focus my attention on.
So for the next year, I’m going to actively embrace the creative process as an opportunity, rather than an entertaining by-product.

That was sufficiently wanky…what does it really mean?
Well for starters I’m going to do some singing lessons. If I’m willing to be seen in public in a triathlon suit…then I can no longer claim that I refrain from public singing out of a sense of common decency. Plus I really like singing…it’s just that my preferred venue is an empty beach where the only thing that can possible hear me is the unfortunate dog I’m walking.
I’m going to pester O’nev into giving me a photography masterclass…and I’m going to try and take some photos that I can enter in a few competitions…and I’m going to set aside time to go and take photos, rather than trying to fit them in around some other activity.
I’m going to finally shoot my short docos on Melbourne people I admire and get them up on YouTube.
But, most importantly I’m going to start putting my work out there…and wait for the internet to tell me how much they hate it. After all, there’s no one’s advice you should take more sagely than an anonymous loner with a keyboard.
So here are my favourite photos that I took this year, let me know your thoughts.
Unfortunately WordPress isn’t playing nice with ‘media’ at the moment…so for the time being you’ll have to click through to Flickr to see all of them…but here’s five to get you started.

Beechworth streetscape

 

Gippsland sunset
Windfarm
Empire
Scarlett O’Hurta at the Rollerderby