Malibu, and other cool stuff

18 12 2009

I’m feeling as ADD as I ever have today, so here’s a blog post to cover several of my scattered thoughts, all in one. That’ll clear my brain out to accommodate a “real” blog post a bit later on today.

Malibu Workshop, February 24 – 25, 2009

I love teaching, and am very happy to announce the first workshop of 2010 in my home state. This is going to be a fun one. It’ll be a very small (seven person) workshop, completely customized to the needs of those who attend. And, it’ll be held in a private residence directly facing the beach. Folks, you just can’t beat that with a stick. I’m excited. I’m a tiny bit too lazy to post too many details here, since I spent the morning updating my website, so I’ll just point and say, “Look!” :


PhotoDino Store

If you’ve enjoyed my Photo Tips O’ the Day and Advice for Aspiring Photographers, you might enjoy these practical little objects. Some of my favorite bits from those writings are now available in dishwasher-safe form right here. (Alright, I wouldn’t recommend putting the mouse pad in the dishwasher, but you know what I’m saying.) They make great gifts for the photography students, starving artists, and the photographers you love—or just put up with. Take a stroll through the store, and check back for new items coming soon.


Happy Holidays

In other news, Piper says Merry Christmas. Truth be told, she doesn’t really believe in Santa anymore, but she does believe in cheese slices, and that explains this photograph.

dog loves Christmas

Rerry Rishmas


The Hauntingly Unfinished

14 12 2009

The mind is a wonderful thing.

I wish I could turn mine off.

At night when I lie awake in bed, my mind refuses to settle in under the covers and rest. It refuses to sleep, preferring to taunt me with the incomplete. The worst nights are the ones when my mind dwells on unmade images. Undocumented moments. Pieces of life that are over and done and already forgotten. They haunt me.

Maybe it’s a project that I started with a magnificent image or two, and a premise that really spoke to me. So many projects that appeal to me on a deep level, that speak to a certain aspect of my soul. There’s an intensely personal out-of-focus image designed to show the world through the eyes of someone who is nearly blind (myself). There are a few images of “stuff” left behind by people; tiny transient pieces of proof that their possessors existed. A fairly significant body of work created within a mile of my home which came to an abrupt halt for really no reason. Beauty in the mundane.

There are images of those around me whom I love and want to document right now, at this stage in their lives. And I want to document myself, as I am on the inside rather than snapshots of the outer me. I am too guarded an individual to express myself so intimately except in music.

Sleeping children who are still blissfully ignorant of the kinds of thoughts that keep me awake at night.

Looking at my list of unfinished projects makes me realize something unexpected: I am desperately driven to document things that make me emotional. I only want my view on the world to be seen and understood. I am not looking for attention; I’m looking for kindred spirits.

I want to believe that I will finish these projects. I really want to. It’s the perpetual false feeling of guilt that drives me. The guilt is driven by my need to accomplish. The need to accomplish is driven by a need to validate myself, which is in turn driven by a need to be understood.

I have to wonder if this perpetual guilt is what drives my portrait work? My need to document the soul and not just the face. Maybe my discontent is the greatest strength of my portrait work. I only want people to be honest and understood as I have never been.

While in some ways I prize this continual sense of incompleteness that drives me to press forward, I wish for the day when I can say, “This project is finished. Now onto the next.”

In the meantime, I will have to content myself with the challenge of documenting the deepest side of everyone I photograph. That seems a fair trade.

I still can’t sleep.

come to me

You Get What You Give

10 12 2009

Every time you photograph someone, you tell them, “You’re important enough to remember.” Make the most of it.

What if we, as portrait photographers, approached every session this way? How would it effect our interactions with our subjects, and therefore our work?

There is so much emphasis these days on getting “cool” shots, on trendy post-processing, on getting shots that sell. For the professionals and aspiring professionals, it’s easy to focus on building portfolios and bodies of work that will further our careers. While I’m not suggesting those things are bad, I sometimes feel like we’re missing the point most of the time. It’s good to step back and ask, “What is the subject getting out of this session?”

When you point your lens toward another person, you are telling them that they noteworthy; that of all the people in the world, they alone have your attention at this moment in time. You have the golden and rare opportunity to transform the simple act of photographing a person, into the forming of a human connection that didn’t exist before. If you’re photographing an experienced model, perhaps that doesn’t sound very important, however when you’re photographing someone like Bill, the experience can be profound.


Bill, the tavern regular

Bill is the sort of guy who nobody really notices, except maybe to feel sorry for. He’s the guy who sits quietly on his bar stool, and probably has a lot of great stories to share, but nobody asks. Bill was the reason I began photographing the regulars at this bar. When I asked to photograph him, I expected to have to talk him into it. Much to my surprise, Bill lit up like a Christmas tree and was very happy to sit for several frames. He told me all about himself, and we became friends instantly. It wasn’t photographer / subject, it was human / human. Although I love the resulting image, Bill never even asked to see it. The photograph was completely unimportant to him; the act of giving him my full attention was everything.

Challenge yourself to make all of your subjects feel as important as Bill. Be generous with yourself. Slow down. Learn something significant about each of your subjects, whether they’re two years old, or eighty-two years old. Make a connection. Remember always that you get what you give.

Photo Tips o’ the Day, Part 2

5 12 2009

The second part of the PTOD archives. Again, this is not meant to be a cohesive essay. They’re simply random thoughts that have occurred to me over coffee, in the course of conversations, etc. A few of my favorites are in bold.

Incidentally, I’m planning to write a few entries in the future elaborating on some of the points from PTOD and Advice for Aspiring Photographers. If there’s a particular point or two you’d like to see explained in more depth, please let me know.


The surest way to become a photographic trend setter is to completely disregard all photographic trends.

Do ONLY what you want to do. People who don’t understand are not your target clientele / audience. So what?

In your quest to create the best images you can, don’t forget that sometimes it’s the snapshots that mean the most.

The only photos we can ever really regret are the ones we never make. Stop thinking about shooting, and shoot!

Your photographic style should not be determined by fear of trying new things. “Scared” is not a style.

Never apologize or make excuses for your work. We are rarely as good or bad as we think we are.

Work with your personality, not against it. It’s OK to be shy in your sessions. Learn to make it work for you.

Shoot what intimidates you. Seek out the subjects/sessions that are hardest for you. That’s how we grow.

When in doubt, simplify.

There is only photographic rule that should never be broken: respect your subjects.

You can either build your business by having a unique style – or by being the cheapest. Which sounds more fun?

Don’t worry that you aren’t creative enough. Express yourself deeply and allow your work to be what it is.

Perfectionism and high standards are not the same thing. Perfectionism is ego with a dash of self-doubt.

Nobody but you can make your photographs. If you don’t do it, no one will, and those moments will be lost.

A portrait session is a beautiful dance between photographer and subject; if either doesn’t participate, it’s just a recital.

Photograph according to your own artistic compass, and gain the clients who value it. Never apologize for your style.

If at first you don’t succeed, you probably need a light meter.

You do not need the latest and greatest gear. It’s an expensive distraction. Learn to effectively use what you have.

Know your technique so you can forget about it. Luck is nice, but a terrifying thing to rely on.

A successful portrait is a side effect of a strong human connection. What are you giving for your subjects to respond to?

Sharpness is overrated. There’s a place for a gentle, subtle print. Eyelashes do not have to look like weapons.

Every time you photograph someone, you tell them, “You’re important enough to remember.” Make the most of it.

There is perfection in imperfection. Don’t be afraid to show character and experience in your subject’s faces.

Your technique should never upstage your subject. It should enhance the image, not take over.

Photographers need to be photographed. It teaches us empathy for our subjects. It isn’t easy to be in front of the lens.

There is no such thing as bad light. There is only light that is used badly.

It matters little how great your portraits are if your clients don’t have fun. The session should be its own reward.

A great portrait is a side effect of a strong human connection. Be a person first, a photographer second.

It does not matter how good your post processing is if you start with a badly lit image! Good lighting is KEY.

Everything you need to know about lighting can be learned from your catchlights and shadows. You must know how to read them!

Soph and Grandma B

Soph and Grandma B

Location, location, location

27 11 2009

Some people worry a little when they read that I work entirely on location. There seems to be a perception that I only photograph in photogenic mansions. Not so. Working on location allows very important context for portraiture. It’s the difference between a portrait session and a magazine shoot, between reality and a “reality show”. The following are examples of images that simply couldn’t have happened anywhere else.

the wild ones

the wild ones

This is one of those slice-of-life scenes that I love so much. This only happens at the kitchen table.

kid in shed

kid in shed

Some might find the junk in this shed a distraction; I find it interesting. Some images tell a story, while others raise the questions. This is one that is very open to interpretation by the viewer.

the twins

the twins

The twins in their friend’s very, very small kitchen. It’s not grand, but it feels like home to the girls, who were much happier in their undies than the dresses they were wearing previously.



Still not convinced? This image was shot in the entryway to a Macaroni Grill restaurant. The light was great, the kid was in a good mood, and the location just worked.

No mansions in sight, and I prefer it that way. Character and context are much more meaningful than grand surroundings. Life happens where it happens, and the best photographs remind us of what it felt like in that moment. So don’t worry that your house isn’t featured in next month’s Home and Garden. It’s home, and that’s good enough for me.

Photo Tips O’ the Day

20 11 2009

It’s been some time since I added to my blog. Life has a way of getting in the way of life. I thought I’d re-kick my blog with some of the “photo tips o’ the day” I’ve written, for those who haven’t seen them. They’re meant to be short reminders, sometimes motivational and sometimes mini-rants; they’re by no means a complete essay.

So please enjoy them, apply what applies to you, and share as you see fit (with proper credit, of course. Y’all know how I feel about that.)

– CJ



Disregard those who say you “must” do this or “can’t” do that. Art is not about limitations and restrictions.

If you are frustrated with your work, focus on one area at a time. You can’t climb three mountains at once.

Ruts are things we fall into when we work habitually rather than consistently. Switch off your auto-pilot.

Perfectionists: consider printing and signing your work. It forces you to take ownership and eliminates excuses.

Allow your sessions to breathe. Pauses help you to steer the session organically, and to keep your head clear.

Walk all the way around your subject and watch how the light changes the scene and mood. Light is a creative tool.

The common denominator in all your sessions is you. Shoot for you first and your clients will always know what to expect.

Don’t be so quick to delete and discard failed photos. Study them to learn what to do differently next time.

Personal space is mental, emotional, and physical. The key to a great portrait is to know how to be invited in.

Know your technique so that you can forget it. Focusing on the technical robs your subjects of your full attention.

Overshooting out of fear of missing “the shot” often means “the shot” never happens. Shoot less, engage more.

Portraits are like short stories; the elements that don’t add to your story will detract. Choose details carefully.

In portraits, mood/expression is key. Light, comp, backgrounds, post-processing, and contrast must work together to support it.

Each time you pick up the camera, you hold the raw materials to create a masterpiece. Shoot like you mean it.

Improving your work requires practice. Musicians don’t play only when they’re on stage.

Don’t allow yourself to fixate solely on your perceived weaknesses. Own your strengths and be proud of them.

If the most eye-catching part of your image is the action you ran, it may be time to reassess your work.

four generation portrait

four generation portrait

28 09 2009
National Velveteen

National Velveteen

There is no such thing as “bad light”. There is only light used badly. Sometimes you gotta use what you have — in this case, it was overhead florescent lights in an arena, with a tiny little bit of fill from a distant doorway. Many times photographers assume that it’s not possible to achieve good lighting when the light source is directly overhead; not true, Petunia. You simply have to have your subjects look up toward the light, or in the case of a candid like this one, wait for the subject to do so on their own, and be ready.

This one has a sort of National Velvet-y feel to it that really appeals to me. Fortunately, these horses have gotten used to the massive ka-chunk of my medium format shutter. I prefer to first do no harm. People look better on horses than in a crumpled heap under them.