Things I Learned at WPPI

bythom US NV WPPI2024 z8 85971

I recently attended the conference of wedding and portrait photographers for the first time. I'm not either, so despite that having been an annual event for well over a decade, I tended to look the other way and go to conferences that were in my wheelhouse. 

However, I'm a committed life-long learner, and it was well past time for me to look at what photographers in other arenas are doing. 

Here are some of the things I learned during the week.

  1. Viewfinders are over-regarded. At first I was a bit stunned to see how many well-regarded professionals were never looking through the viewfinder of their camera, but instead always using the Rear LCD. However, when you think about it, one of the things that the wedding and portrait photographer have to do is keep intimate contact with their model. Looking through a viewfinder basically puts a slab of metal/plastic between model and photographer and is distancing. You can keep eye contact and demonstrate things like the head position you want so much easier if you don't have a camera at your eye. 

    Of course, this means two things: (1) you need a Rear LCD that tilts for vertical images; and (2) you need a Rear LCD that is bright and detailed enough to see what's going on (and you probably shouldn't wear sunglasses trying to view the Rear LCD, as most are TFT). A lot of cameras fail on one or both of these things. Which led to at least one speaker I saw who used a pivoting HDMI monitor in the hot shoe, which can be cumbersome. And I thought gimbals were awkward and heavy when held in front of you.

  2. Some photographers are ingenious. Give them a lemon, and they will instantly make lemonade. Give them a grape, and they're stomping wine. One fellow from South America who's been on a limited gear budget since forever was still using a medium format Hasselblad film camera. But he needs timely photos for his Instagram account. His solution? Use a smartphone to photograph the big top-facing focus  screen of his film camera, and post immediately, deliver film results/prints later.

    It was fascinating to watch him at work. Quite obviously, he took very few photos with the Hasselblad (every film image costs real money to create and process). But he did a lot of work with the smartphone promoting the few images he did take. In essence, he was juggling marketing and final delivery at the same time. Those are two very different mindsets to be in at the same time, and it was interesting to watch as he managed to multi-process them.
  3. Models aren't mind readers and can get paranoid. I already knew this going in, but a whole week of observing and practicing it really reinforced it. 

    The number one rule is to show your models what you're doing. While they'll try to make sense of what you're telling them,
    showing them the result lets them see it and helps them understand what you might be attempting. That's especially true when you're working with complex lighting situations that delivery a "mood" or "style" to the image. They can't see the results of what the light does unless you show them. Moreover, it's a confidence booster for the model that you're getting something good out of the dance the two of you are doing. And when you ask them to do something that seems silly or exaggerated to them and then show them an image that works, they get less stressed that they might be doing "too much" and just work with you rather than against you.

    I saw a number of professional models who I'd say had low self esteem, or at least lower esteem about what they can do than they think is true. Many seem to be unsure if they're actually giving you what you wanted (this applies to casual portraiture with non-models, too). Thus, showing them instant results from time to time starts to break that down.

    But models are paranoid in other ways, too. In the past I've watched some photographers approach brides, grooms, business people, sports athletes, and just casual subjects to do something like adjust the drape of some clothing or hair or accessory. What usually happens is what I call "the cringe." The subject doesn't know why you're approaching and what you're going to do and suddenly your hand goes up unexpectedly toward a part of their body they weren't expecting. The pro photographers doing this for a living get past this problem in two ways: (1) announce what it is they're about to do before doing it; and (2) more importantly, keep their hands up and in front of them as they approach so that the subject sees them and isn't surprised by them. It's a small thing, but a really important one. 

  4. Models don't like to smile. Apparently modeling school has taught all the professional models that scowls and seriously constipated looks are what make them money. Personally, I find that sort of expression to make them more rigid and unrelaxed, even if that's similar to the facial expression I want.

    The best approaches I saw always "loosened up" the subject prior to asking for specific looks. I actually found myself taking "smile photos" by making jokes and bantering with them before I tried to move a model more toward any more serious look I really wanted. I noticed the following again and again: if the model just immediately goes to their established "serious look" they've apparently been trained to do, that seems to always appear more forced and tense than if you work them towards it instead. I dealt with this issue with actors back when I was a filmmaker, so it wasn't a surprise to me, and I fell naturally back into my old "director's chatter." Still, it made me realize that I hadn't been doing as much of this lately with some recent athlete photos I did. It's sort of the trust thing: you're building a relationship first, then using that to get a result. You don't just go straight for the result.

  5. Improvisation and trial and error takes too much time. Two of the key elements of the conference are the "shooting bays" and the "photo walks." In the former, a pre-established light and set is available, and the model just pops in and you get right to working for your image. In the latter, some of the instructors are pretty dialed in with their ability to replicate a lighting situation in pretty much any environment, and you get to photographing quickly. But some of the instructors—including one who's a well-known pro in a major market—spend so much time trying to replicate a lighting look by trial and error that I can't imagine that the agency clients feel good about all the time that takes. Good thing his images have a (somewhat) unique look to them. Because it takes him far too long to achieve them in any new environment. 

    Meanwhile, another well-known pro (from the same big market) wanted her models to do some specific things. But she had already worked all the details out, had the props, and had tried the (semi) improvised things she wanted them to do beforehand. Thus, she was right to the picture taking and small adjustments, not fiddling with knobs, dials, locations of things, and more. Given that you tend to pay for models and locations for their time, the less you're trying to figure things out, the less it's going to cost you. 

    If you're ever lucky enough to take portraits of someone famous, you need to understand the difference between improvisation and pre-realized. Generally, you're usually only given a few minutes with said folk, whether they're just another semi-famous-today athlete or book author on a promotional tour or someone truly famous to whom access is guarded like gold at Fort Knox. They all expect to walk in, give you just enough time to take a few photos, and then move on to whatever is planned for them next. You really have to have your lighting and set(s) good to go before they walk in and get right to the image making. Improvisation at that point, let alone trial and error, will probably result in a disgruntled subject who'll never give you the time of day again, as well as poor images that never make it to print.

    It's one thing to improvise a model's facial expression or body/hand position, it's another to start with too much of a blank slate and have an expensive prop just sitting around doing nothing while they wait for you to get something set up or fetch another prop. 

    This is actually the reason why I prefer to have a studio I control. I can spend hours, days, or even weeks fiddling with lighting and sets and stand-ins to see what's possible and whether that might be what I might want. Then, when push comes to shove and the bride, model, or famous person walks in, I'm ready to get right to the photo making. As Paul Simon once said, "improvisation is too good to leave to chance." 

  6. Angel wings are real. Another thing I sort of knew, but I was a bit surprised to see how prevalent, elaborate, and expensive some of these model props such as angel wings have become. Enough so that there were entire booths of them at the WPPI expo.

    The real thing to learn here is that fads can have substantial wings (pardon the pun). After visiting the booths, I started asking around among the wedding and portrait photographers at the conference whether or not they were getting requests for these things, and the answer was a unanimous yes. That's one of those good news/bad news situations. The elaborate prop required and the skill to get that rendered well can bring you in extra bucks. But everyone's now doing it, so it's getting difficult to market that as something that you can uniquely do.

    Which brings me to a realization (I've had similar ones before): the trick is to be the one who's creating the fad that goes viral and being the only one that can provide it initially. I think if I were in the portrait/wedding photo business I'd be asking a lot of questions of my potential subjects about how they really see themselves. Are they an animal? A mythical creature? A superhero? What? Because if I could truly capture that in their portrait they'd be showing and sharing it faster than I could even bring up my Instagram account. Your customers are your best marketing, and I'm absolutely certain that applies to portrait and wedding work. 
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