What I Learned From Zack Arias about Photography

A couple weeks ago I sat down to watch Zack Arias’s workshop called The Foundations of a Working Photographer held by creativeLIVE.com.  CreativeLIVE makes amazing photography workshops with some incredible photographers, and if you watch them live, its free, or for a fairly low price you can download the whole thing.  It’s like TV, only on the internet.

Anyway his workshop was amazing.  I even stayed up half the night on Days 1 & 2 to see the rewatch because I missed the first half those mornings.  I wanted to give you a quick rundown of what I got from that weekend.  This is in no way an overview of the whole workshop.  Just some of what made it into my notes.  There is so much information I am leaving out.

The Camera

Know your camera, inside, outside, and upside down.  Know how to use every function effectively and create good pictures before you upgrade to a new one.  Because we all know it’s not the camera that takes the pictures it’s the photographer.

I have mastered the whole ISO, F-stop, Shutter Speed trinity long ago.  As a young teen my dad gifted me my grandfathers Film Roloflex SLR.  My dad set it on manual (he insisted) and taught me to use a handheld light meter.  At the time I thought he was a little crazy, now I think he was a genius.

What I didn’t fully understand until this weekend was the effect of Focal Length on the final image.  I mean I understood that a wide angle lens, like a 20mm or 35mm would be good for landscapes because you can see more of the frame, but it can have some distortion on the edges.  Zack explained that it also makes things in the background seem farther away.  A wide angle lens expands your horizons making everything look larger and gives the illusion of more space.

I also knew that 50mm is similar to how we see with our eyes and is good for most things.  70mm+ is telephoto range and is great for portraits & pictures where you are trying to see something far away.  Like an eagle on a mountaintop.  What Zack showed me is that a telephoto lens compresses the subject and the background.  He had great pictures to explain this.  I will try to describe it the best I can.

When you take a picture with a telephoto lens, something that is far away in the distance will suddenly be very close and very large in your photo.  So if you posed a plate of food and was taking the photo looking across at it with an 100mm lens, something that was way across the room, like a poster on a wall will get very large and feel like it is right behind the table you are photographing.  If you used a 50mm lens, standing in the same place, the poster would look like it does when you look at it with your own eyes and you would see a little more of the wall.  If you used a 20 mm lens the poster and the whole wall would appear farther away and you would see way more of the wall.  I hope that makes sense.  If you have questions please ask and I will try to explain more.

So Wide Angle

  • expands the subject and background
  • gives a wide depth of field (DOF)
  • makes things appear farther away then they are
  • pushes things outward
  • It’s great for landscapes, wide open spaces, or when you need to photograph a large setting in a small amount of space
  • Beware of distortion, especially in portraits with a wide angle lens!

And Telephoto

  • compresses the subject and the background making it seem like there is only a little space between the two
  • you get a more shallow depth of field
  • things in the background appear closer and larger than they actually are
  • 70-105mm is the best focal length range for portrait photography

Camera to subject distance, focal length, and aperture all affect your Depth of Field. It’s the DOF trinity!

  • To get a shallow DOF (only a small part in focus, everything else blurry) use a longer focal length like 70mm+, a wide open aperture (low #) and get close to your subject.
  • To get a deep DOF (lots in focus) use a shorter focal length like 35mm or less, closed aperture (high #), and get farther from your subject.

Notes on Composition

  • learn the rule of thirds, then learn how to break it and still make a great photo.
  • Look for a frame within a frame.  All examples are from Zack’s Flickr Stream Example One, Example Two.  Find “frames” for your subjects.  It helps bring the focus to them.
  • Look for repeating shape and form.  Example one. Example Two.
  • Head in a clean spot.  Zack really drilled this into us.  Example.
  • Look for leading lines that lead the viewer’s eye around the photo.
  • Look at the details.  Make sure everything is perfect in camera.  Zack would probably critique this photo he took a few years back and say that she should have been slightly more centered in between the buildings.  So that her arm is not overlapping the building at all and she should have equal space on the sides of her head.  Those are the details.

The Business

To set up a portfolio Zack recommends printing out 8x10s of your favorite shots and putting them up on a blank wall so you can study them every day.  What do you like about them and why?  After you have 20-30 or more portfolio worthy photos up on the wall start to look for a pattern in style.  Do your photos tend to be very colorful or monochromatic?  Are they moody and dark or light and happy?  Look at them as a body of work.  Slowly eliminate photos that don’t mesh with the rest of the group.  Your style should start to show itself.  Remember your portfolio needs to flow.  Match photos together to see which ones look best together.  Match by color, mood, texture, subject, ect.  Just make sure one picture flows into the next.

When starting up your business Zack recommends

  • keeping expenses low.  Don’t use credit cards.  Don’t take out a loan to buy a $3000 camera you really don’t need.
  • tell everyone about your business, about what your goals are.  The more people who know who you are the more potential clients you have.  Set a goal to give your business card to 30 new people a week.
  • Shoot anything that will pay.  Hey you gotta pay the bills right?  Zack did cheap Craigslist portraits in the park with CD when he started.  There is nothing wrong with that.  You are not stealing other photographer’s business or bringing down the market price.  People who are paying for $150 for Craigslist portraits do not have the money to spend $1000 at that other photographer’s studio.  Only someone who can afford $1000 portraits is going to buy $1000 portraits.  Many people cannot afford that.  Myself included.  Beginner photographers should have no issues catering to a lower income crowd.  They deserve pictures of their family too.
  • Pick one subject to become an expert in.  Think of it this way.  You can be good at a lot of things or a master at one thing.  If you like two subjects, like food and portraits, do both and focus on whichever takes off first.  Or find some way to combine the two genres.
  • Research your genre.  Know who is who, what is what.  Know who your clients are and what they need from you.  Develop relationships with people.
  • Take baby steps.  Zack said something like.  If you want to photograph bands for Rolling Stone then start by photographing your neighbors garage band for $100.  That’s pretty much where he started.  Start low and move up.  Be patient, but also diligent and ambitious.
  • Get comfortable with the fact that one day you may not be able to afford your own services.  What I mean is if you were a customer you may not be able to afford to get pictures taken by you.  Start getting used to that, you may never.
  • If your business starts booming don’t double your workload, increase your prices.

That is what I have in my notes.  I hope some of this information helps.  I know that my outlook of my photography has been inspired, updated, and nourished by watching his workshop.  Its well worth seeing the whole thing.

If you missed his workshop you can still buy it from creativeLIVE.com for $149.  Over 20 hours of incredible information.  Zack said it was basically his usual weekend workshop for a tenth of the cost.

Also Penny De Los Santos will be teaching Food and Culture Photography on CreativeLive starting tomorrow, Friday May 13 at 10am Pacific time until Sunday May 15th.  To watch live is free.  You can also preorder the class for $99 or buy it later at a higher price.  For those people in other time zones or at work, there will be a rewatch that starts about an hour after each class finishes for the day.

I have a degree in Cultural Anthropology as well as a love of food & photography so when you use Food, Culture & Photography all in the same sentence you have my undivided attention as long as you want it.  Hope to see you there!