The Value of the Experienced (Old) Photographer

I don’t think of my self as old, except at times when a part of my body doesn’t act or react the way it used to. But, I would say that many of my colleagues would call me old, chronologically speaking. The premature deaths of Glenn Frey, David Bowie, Natalie Cole and Alan Rickman – all in the span of a few weeks and all in their late ‘60’s, has given me pause to look at my own mortality. It has also given me resolve to make the most of each day.

The fact is there is nothing we can do about our age.

Gail Mooney with James Michener, Chesapeake Bay, MD
Gail Mooney with James Michener, Chesapeake Bay Photo © Thomas Kelly

Unlike other things in life that we can change, we can’t change our age. But we don’t need to allow a youth-obsessed culture, define our value. I’ve grown weary of the dismissive attitude our culture has about aging. It’s especially frustrating for me as a photographer, filmmaker, and creative entrepreneur. Creativity comes from the spirit within. Our spirit never ages, so neither does our desire and need to create. I’ve never felt more in tune with my spirit and my authentic self than I do now. I never imagined that would happen at this point in my life but I’ve never felt more creatively alive.

I get bewildered and frustrated when society perceives my value as somehow diminished, simply because of my age, but then I look at my assets.

  • Experience – There are no short-cuts when it comes to experience. It’s earned over years of trial and error on the job and in life.
  • Problem Solving – I wish I had kept track of all the problems I’ve solved on assignments as well as in personal life. Countless decisions and consequences to learn from. I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
  • Creativity – I take more chances and push myself in terms of my craft now, than at any other time in my career. I’m not afraid to try something different because I realize that failure is part of the process. So, I hate it when getting older is equated with getting stale. Sure, some folks do but there are so many people in my generation that are still incredibly vibrant and innovative. Check out my latest personal project, “Like A Woman”, short films and still portraits of women working in male-dominated professions.
  • Perspective – I’ve lived through profound changes in the span of my life. They haven’t always been easy to deal with. Technology has changed everything – how we do business, how we communicate, and how we interact, globally. My generation has experienced both the analog and the digital world. Hopefully, most of us are able to see the merits of each. Change is inevitable, it always has been. I’ve been around long enough to experience many cycles of change, and I can tell you for certain, nothing lasts forever. I try not to let change intimidate me, but rather let it excite me to embrace what it has to offer. That has opened me up to all sorts of possibilities.
  • Wisdom – It’s true that we get wiser as we age but only because we’ve had a lot more mistakes to learn from. Whether we’ve learned from our heartbreaks or from the stupid things we’ve done, we’ve grown despite it. Wisdom is kind of like experience – there are no short-cuts to getting there.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this topic and their perspectives.

 

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My Top 3 Tips for Photographers and Filmmakers

I’ve had a long career with a lot of successes and failures. Gail in Window1983Here are 3 tips with examples of lessons I learned along the way.

Get rid of the resistance in your life – Long before I became a photographer, I was on a different path. I was studying architecture at Syracuse University. During the summer of my sophomore year, my friend and I went on a hitchhiking journey to Canada. Along the way, we met and stayed with people we met. I remember one such stay very well. It was pouring outside and we decided to just hang out, rather than face the elements. There were quite a few other travelers sitting around the room, smoking dope and talking about what everyone talked about those days – their disenchantment with the war (Vietnam) and everything else that was status quo, when one fellow erupted and said – “I’m sick and tired of hearing the same old complaints – why don’t you all do something about it.” That stayed with me my whole life. To this day, I try to get rid of the whiners in my life and be the one who does something. My proudest achievement to date has been making the documentary Opening Our Eyes, a film about individuals who are creating positive change.

Don’t hide your vulnerabilities – It took me a long time before I could tell anyone one of my biggest embarrassments, but when I did it was liberating. I was working on an assignment about Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for the National Geographic Traveler Magazine. I had made an appointment to photograph Walter Cronkite, who was a well-known figure on Martha’s Vineyard. The day before our scheduled appointment, I called Mr. Cronkite to confirm. This was way before cell phones and email and even before everyone had answering machines and his phone just rang and rang and rang. I kept calling throughout the day and the same thing happened. By evening, I was upset because I thought that Mr. Cronkite had stood me up. That night, I had a terrible feeling. I thought perhaps that when I had re-written my production notes and contact info for the job, I might have written down the wrong number for Cronkite. I had kept my old notes and discovered that I had been calling the wrong number all day. Imagine how horrified I was when I discovered that it was I who had stood up Walter Cronkite – not the other way around. I called the correct number, Walter answered and I was profusely apologetic as I explained the situation. He was kind and understanding and rescheduled and then he said, “Why didn’t you look me up in the phone book?” I replied that I assumed someone of his stature would not be listed.   I learned never to make assumptions. It took me years before I could tell anyone this story. It’s really hard to admit mistakes but when you do, you gain trust.

Be who you are – not who you aren’t – I had just graduated from Brooks Institute and I wanted to pursue my passions. I wanted to be a photojournalist and use my craft to gain access to a world full of stories. Before I enrolled at Brooks, I had spent a year backpacking around the world. I had one camera and one lens and came back with my snapshots and a whole lot of desire. But it was a bad time for magazine photojournalism – Life Magazine had just folded (the second time) and everyone was telling me that if I wanted to make a living as a photographer, I needed to do commercial work. I bought into that and built a pretty good commercial photography portfolio. Then I went to see legendary NY photographer Jay Maisel, a man known for being blunt. He looked at my work, threw a print at me and told me it was “garbage”. Then he asked me if this was what I wanted to do.  I told him no, that I wanted to be a photojournalist but that everyone had been telling me to pursue commercial work. He asked me how old I was and I replied “25” and then he looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises”. It changed my life and I remind myself every day to be who I am and dream big, even though I may have to settle for less.

10 Tips For Getting GOOD Audio When Using a DSLR

If you’re like most of the professional still photographers I know, you have either expanded your business and offer videomicrophones (in addition to your still photography) to your clients, or have plans to.  If you do have future plans to offer video to your clients, then you are either learning the particulars of that skill set, or you are collaborating with others who are in the know, or both.

Perhaps, one of the most daunting components of video, for still photographers is audio. Capturing audio is totally foreign to a still photographer, yet it is the most important component of all, in video production.

Here are a few tips for getting good audio:

  • You’ll never get good audio using the camera’s built in microphone, – at least not for interviews. Don’t turn the camera’s audio off however.  You can use it later for reference audio when syncing sound later in post-production.
  • Use external microphones for capturing audio interviews.  Ideally, you should record your interview audio using a digital recorder like the Samson Zoom H6 or the Tascam DR-60D with XLR connections.  I usually place a “lav” microphone on my subjects. I will also use a shotgun microphone, mounted (with shock mount) on a boom pole that’s on a fixed stand.  I rely on the microphone on the fixed stand, as opposed to hiring a boom operator, especially if I don’t have the budget for a big crew. If you should decide to use an amateur or assistant as a “boom operator”, rather than hire an experienced operator who knows how to capture “consistent” audio, you’ll most likely end up with poor audio captured at inconsistent levels. The shotgun microphone should be about 12-18 inches away from your subject. You can sync the sound with the video, later in post- production, using the software Plural Eyes.
  • Don’t cross your audio cords with your electrical cords. This causes a hum that you will detect if you are wearing headphones.
  • For run and gun” situations, you can probably get away with using a microphone mounted on the camera, as long as you are close to your audio source. You can either run a microphone (with a mini plug) directly to the camera OR you can run a microphone with an XLR adaptor through a pre-amp like a JuicedLink or a Beachtek, which will yield a cleaner audio capture. This works well for capturing ambient sound for b-roll or live action, and your audio will be recorded to the same card as your video. If you do want to capture your interview audio using a microphone mounted on the camera, make sure that you get your camera in close to your subject (not more than 18 inches away), and that you us a mixer or a pre-amp.
  • Microphones – Use an omni-directional or cardiod microphone when you are in a more controlled situation and you want your sound coming from more directions – like on a sound stage.  “Lav” microphones can be used for interviews, either hard wired or with a wireless kit. Be careful when you attach it to your subject and position it to avoid any unnecessary noise coming from hair or jewelry rubbing up against it. A good camera mounted microphone is the Sennheiser MKE 400 (compact shotgun). For interviews I use my cardiod Sennheiser ME66 with K6 powering module.
  • Use a wireless system only when you NEED to. In cities like New York you can get a lot of interference on various frequencies. Always go wired when you can. A great and affordable hard-wired “lav”, is the SonyECM44B And if you find yourself needing a wireless system, spend the money to get a system that has a good range.
  • Use a good windscreen or “dead cat” when outside. Even if you’re inside, on a windy day, with windows open, you can pick up wind noise.
  • Use headphones. Don’t just look at your meters.  Your meter may indicate that you are recording sound, but it may not be good sound – it could be you are picking up interference or getting distorted and clipped audio. Wear headphones and make sure that you are getting quality sound.
  • Always consider that you will be using the audio – even for your b-roll.  You will need clean usable audio for b-roll, even if it’s only intended as ambient, background sound.
  • Pay attention to audio. Start by letting your ears do more of the work. Every room and situation has its own sound. Listen up. Be quiet and tell your crew to be quiet as well. You never know when you’ll want to use the audio – even if you think you won’t need it.

You can read more about what I brought with me in the way of gear, when I literally circled the globe, creating my first feature length film.  The film is now available on DVD.

If you’d like to know more about “moving into motion”, check out my book, The Craft and Commerce of Motion and Video.

5 Tips for Filmmakers (and other artists) for Building an Audience

The good news for Indie filmmakers, musicians, photographers and new media artists is that technology enables us to take control and distribute our own work to the masses or a more targeted niche audience.  The bad news is that even though we are able to reach a global audience without giving the lion’s share of our profits to an agent or distributor – it’s a lot of hard work.

When I completed final production on my first feature documentary, Opening Our Eyes, I knew I was hardly finished with this film, not if I wanted people to see it. theater interioeIMG_0150Since most filmmakers make their movies to be seen, they need to decide how they want their movies distributed and marketed.  As a filmmaker, do you want to delegate this task to a distribution company or do it yourself?  Will you be one of the lucky 1% of filmmakers who get their films picked up for distribution?  If not, do you have a plan on how to do that?

1. Identify and build audience – Regardless if you decide to sign with a distributor or distribute your work yourself, the most important part of marketing and distributing a film is to identify and build your audience – and you should start building your audience before the film is finished.  As soon as I made a commitment to make a film, I started blogging about it.  I created a blog specifically about the film where my daughter and I talked about preparing for and taking a 99-day journey around the world. I also wrote about the making of the film on this blog where I talked about gearing up for it as well as the post-production process.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was building our niche audience.

2. Have a social media plan:

  • Decide on platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, YouTube, Vimeo
  • Carve out the time to engage
  • Decide where the content will come from – behind the scenes photos or footage, blogs, podcasts?
  • Who and where is your audience? Find other Facebook groups or pages and followers who are interested in the same topic as yours.  Collaborate. Build your Twitter followers same way.

3. Finding true fans – Since most filmmakers will most likely NOT have a mega hit with huge profits, the best thing a filmmaker can do is build their “true fan” base.  First you should ask yourself how many “true fans” would you need to sustain yourself as a filmmaker? And by true fan, I mean people who are willing to buy whatever you are selling, be it a book, a DVD, a music download or a t-shirt.  The key to growing your core “true fans” is to engage them by sharing interesting content as opposed to just selling something.

4. Be consistent and stick with it – Like anything else, building an audience takes time.  Be prepared to constantly interact and engage your audience by sharing relevant and interesting content with them.  You’re building a tribe or a community.

5. Find likely partners – Making films is a collaborative effort.  Similarly, for filmmakers to be successful in marketing their films they need to find their core niche.  One great way to find your niche audience is to identify like minded groups and share links.  The non-profit my daughter works for partnered with us and we frequently share each other’s news with our followers.

Opportunities for Self-Initiated Projects

There seems to be a prevailing attitude of doom and gloom. We have an economy that can’t seem to turn itself around and we’re bombarded by change that technology continues to thrust upon us. We’re scared to death of the unknown and nobody seems to know what to do next and how to make any money doing it.

Yet, I’ve never been more hopeful in my life. Why? Key of Life, Temple of Abu Simbel, Egypt Because I no longer need someone else to validate my ideas – and that is a powerful notion.  Those of us in the communication business seem to be particularly fearful. Some believe that the “news” business is dying because print publications – newspapers and magazines are folding every week.  But the “news” business is not dying – it’s just being delivered  in another way – electronically and globally.  There are no longer just a few gatekeepers with a lock on the playing field.

Human beings are social animals and we will always have the need to communicate with each other.  These days we can communicate with one another globally.  An idea or creation can be shared around the world in a matter of minutes.  Think of the power in that and think of how we can use that power and the opportunities it presents.  I could digress into a discussion on the ethics of this thought but I’d like to focus more on the reach and influence that each one of us has in creating awareness.

Many of us get enamored with the latest devices that enable us to deliver and receive information with speed and ease. As technology’s exponential growth continues to change our lives in every way imaginable, we will constantly be incorporating and upgrading new gadgets and devices as part of our lives.  We need to be mindful that these “toys” are merely enablers and that each one of us can use these tools to create and distribute our words, images, designs and ideas across the planet.

I think that we as creative’s or journalists underestimate ourselves sometimes.  Perhaps because we chose professions that aren’t lucrative – at least in terms of money.  However, what one is paid doesn’t necessarily correlate with one’s worth. We live in a time now where we can use our creative skills to really make a difference and to tell the stories that we feel need to be told. Mass communication has been democratized. We no longer need the traditional gatekeepers to validate our ideas.

I never would have dreamed that I would be able to circumvent the globe, create a documentary with only one other person in my crew  – my daughter and then distribute it internationally. I never imagined that I would have the power to create awareness on a global level like I did when I uploaded my trailer to Vimeo.  In less than a month after it was uploaded, that trailer has been played in almost half the countries on the planet.  Staggering thought.

This was not a commissioned project by a network or a motion picture studio. If I had waited for that – it never would have happened. I assigned myself.  I was able to fund it by using my airline points, hotel rewards and doing trades with manufacturers for equipment.  I also successfully raised money via Kickstarter a crowd funding site  that made it possible for me to hire a professional editor. My daughter and I have been building an audience  since we started blogging about our journey. Our readers got more and more engaged as they followed us on our 99-day adventure around the world. They spread the word through Facebook and Twitter and via their own blogs and pretty soon word of our project spread virally. That was precisely our goal.  To use our tools and skills to create a film about the change makers of our world so that others would be inspired and motivated as to what they can do.

I often think about how things in my life and in history would have been different if we had the Internet when I was growing up.  For starters it would have had a huge effect on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and the Vietnam War.  But everything happens in its own time and when it is meant to happen.  Change can be scary or it can be embraced and sometimes both at the same time.

Never stop dreaming. Never stop learning. Always listen to that inner voice.  Then use the means and the tools of the day to do the dance you are meant to do.

Creating Inspiration

I’ve gotten away from writing lately, maybe because I’ve been really busy, and maybe because I’ve felt uninspired.  That’s a terrible feeling for me, it’s as if I’m void of any “feeling” at all.  It tends to happen when I’m spending more time doing the things I don’t want to do instead of what I feel I’m here to be doing.

When I woke up this morning I thought, “anything can happen today”.  Temple of Horus, Edfu, EgyptThat thought in it self makes me want to get out of bed. I start thinking about the endless possibilities that can happen on any given day.  I grabbed a cup of coffee, checked my email and read Seth Godin’s blog and it was like it was written for me.  It was called “The moment of highest leverage”.  He was talking about moments when you’ve either lost something or won – when it feels hopeless or when it appears to be a lock.  He said that these were the times you can choose to do what’s in your heart and bring your real work to the world, instead of the lesser version that you think the market wants.

I’ve been struggling with feelings of hopelessness after a slew of rejections and misses. I knew I needed two things:  a change of scenery and some insightful conversation.  I went to Hawaii on impulse and got both.  One day, my good friend PF Bentley was showing me the “film” that he made for National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones.  Dewitt has been shooting extraordinary images for the Natl. Geo for over 40 years and he had hired PF to create inspirational corporate training videos.    The “film” segments were a combination of Dewitt speaking about his life and his career in an inspirational way and b-roll of him shooting in beautiful Hawaiian settings interwoven with his amazing still images.   The piece was so touching; it brought tears to my eyes.  When it was over I started crying and I apologized to PF.  He said, “that’s ok, I know I’ve done my job right”.  PF and Dewitt had done theirs jobs right and they had inspired me.

I’ve had two speaking engagements and a screening of Opening Our Eyes this past weekend and in each situation, I was feeling good and that I had something to say and to share.  It must have come across because at each venue there was at least one person who I inspired – I could tell – I could feel it.  There was one woman at the screening, who had found out about it through one of our subject’s blog, Maggie Doyne. After the movie was over and most people had gone, I talked to her for a long time and I could see that the film had inspired her greatly.  I knew that I had done my job right and it was the best feeling in the world.  It reminded me of what is most important to me in my life and that is to create awareness with my still images or movies and move people or inspire them.

I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook these days but I was looking at my news feed at the end of that long weekend and I noticed a photo that Ethan Browne (Jackson Browne’s son) had posted on his page.  It was a photograph of Jackson with one of his fans and Ethan had commented underneath it  “proud of   my pops – he stokes people for a living”.  I smiled and I thought, “That’s what I want to do”.

The Difference Between Photographers & Filmmakers

Red carpet of the Palais des Festivals et des ...
Red carpet of the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès during the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am winding down after a couple of intense months, traveling the film festival circuit with my documentary Opening Our Eyes.  I have enjoyed every bit of it, but it wore me out – in a good way.

I find that when I am “out there”, I get richly rewarded in many ways.  I think what I enjoyed the most about the film festivals, and what was the most beneficial to me, was the opportunity to dialog with other filmmakers.  I learned a lot in the process. But what stood out to me was how different these conversations were from conversations that I have with my still photographer colleagues.

Many times the conversations I was having with other filmmakers were centered on a story.  That should come as no surprise because that’s what filmmakers do – they tell stories.  But filmmakers tell stories “cinematically”, so when they are talking about the story that they are currently working, or a story idea they want to pursue, they speak in great visual detail so I see a very clear picture in my head.

My conversations with my still photographer peers, in terms of craft, are more apt to be about how they created an image.  Photographers generally talk more about the role they played in making the photo, like how they lit it or the gear they used.  Sometimes, photographers will tell me a story about what they went through to make a photograph and those stories can be very interesting and entertaining, but again the conversation is more about the execution of the image – than the story of the image.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how and where I fit into the mix. The truth is, I remain in the middle – a true hybrid.  I realize that ever since I can remember, I have always seen stories playing out cinematically in my head, so I guess I have always had a filmmaker’s mind even though it lay dormant for most of my professional career.  On the other hand, as a still photographer and one who has been an observer of life through my camera I see things like light and composition.

So, I am a true hybrid and I can see my still photographic “eye” in the motion work I create. Others who have seen my film have remarked about the composition and lighting, because it does look different and stands out from other documentaries.  Sometimes that has been a good thing and sometimes not.  Regardless, it is what it is – a creation from a still photographer’s eye applied to motion.

Embrace the differences – see what happens.