Jason Pagan: Training a Photographer

I was recently browsing the web site of photo agency Anarchy Images, and I came across their requirements for new photographers. “Photographers may be required to complete additional training.” What kind of training, I wondered? (And how do my own skills measure up?) Anarchy founder Jason Pagan graciously took the time to explain in this unexpurgated look at his thoughts on the subject. When Jason was at Black Star, his duties included managing that famed agency’s internship program.

Wayne: What kind of shortcomings are you finding in the training of some photogs? What are you recommending to younger or emerging photographers whose skills are not up to the level you want?

Jason: I should start off by saying that there is no photographer so great [that they cannot] benefit from having their work critically reviewed periodically. That said, as part of the Anarchy Images standard contract, photographers may be required to take courses provided by Anarchy Images to remain affiliated with us. By including this clause in our contract, we are not only able to maintain very high standards but to constantly improve. In most cases an Anarchy Images Photographer will be teaching the course to his or her peers. These courses can range from “Laying out an Essay” to “Working with Multimedia” to “Finding a Fixer.” Some reasons for this requirement are to keep up with changing trends and technology.

As far as shortcomings I have been finding with photographers–and what a photographer can do about it–with the advent of digital photography many formerly required skills have been “lost”–or at least become rusty. This is in no way a tirade against digital photography, it’s simply an observation. One of the problems I have been finding is the lack of some intermediate and advanced skills. These skills include editing images, arranging images, waiting for the shot, consistency. I would consider basic skills your technical and camera operation (though there are different levels of these). At minimum a photographer needs to know how to get a sharp photo in most standard situations to fulfill “basic skills.” Much of what I am going to mention here I addressed in the internships I managed at Black Star.

Problems:

1. Basic technical skills: take courses, read books. Learn every aspect of your camera, every button, every light, everything! Then shoot! shoot! shoot! And don’t stop until you can recreate any shot you want or least have a very good idea how.

2. Framing Shots/Waiting for a shot: Now is the time to stop shooting. Study photography books, I mean really study. Was the photographer kneeling? Sitting? Or face down in the mud when a certain shot was taken? What is the quality of light, angle? Now shoot incredibly sparingly. Limit yourself to one to three rolls (or their equivalent per self assignment), no more. When these are shot, no more! Even if you are only half done. Go home and review what you have shot. Did you miss anything because you had to go home? Good! Next time you will be more conscious of how much you are shooting. Try doing the same shots over from different angles: kneeling, standing, lying down, hell standing on your head if you have to! Understand what effects these changes have on your images. During this whole process, no cropping, no altering, use only one format.

Too many photographers want to shoot in multiple formats before having mastered a single format. My response to this is usually, “So you want to suck in multiple formats now?” Inevitably there is the “but so-and-so does it,” and of course the referred to photographer has usually been shooting for 40 years. My advice to young photographers is to master one thing at a time.

3. Editing: I have known many great photographers that were lousy editors. It’s a separate skill set. The biggest problem I find is “JGL Syndrome.” This is when photographers describe the importance of an image in terms of the larger social impact of the issue, or their personal emotions or how they had “Just Got Laid” and were really happy when they took the photo. Images should primarily be included in a selection for what was captured in the frame.

4. Arranging images: Images must flow together to expand on the story or event–not to showcase a photographer’s pretty pictures unless it is a portfolio group of singles. There are opening, detail, transitional, portrait, situational and closing shots. Learn how to use them and organize them.

The next two problems are my own personal pet peeves: consistency and horizontals. I will explain. Within the context of a single story or essay avoid mixing formats: BW with color, digital with film, 6×6 with 35MM or panoramic. This can be very visually jarring and distracting from the content from the images, which should be the primary focus. Yes, lots of photographers mix formats, but incredibly few of them do it well. Images can be inconsistent even when shot in a single format. A story or essay should have a natural flow, not jump back and forth between random situations and tonal levels (see problem#1). My other major pet peeve is “horizontals.” Yes, I said “horizontals”–rather, any full story or essay that is all horizontals. This is a pretty sure sign that the photographer that shot the story is either a hack or lazy. Yes, I said it! Common excuses:

* “I didn’t have any verticals I liked.” Then you did not shoot enough.
* “My slide show is not set up for verticals.” Then change your slide show.
* “Someone can just crop it.” You lazy bastard!

Art directors and photo editors need verticals for layout purposes. It shouldn’t be their job to correct something by cropping when you should have framed the shot in your viewfinder. In addition, whether hanging on a wall, in an exhibit, in the pages of a publication, or even a web slide show, verticals provide a simple visual cue to pause by breaking up the linear progression of images. Simple test: place 20 horizontal images in a slideshow and place 16 horizontal images and four vertical images spaced roughly evenly throughout in a different slideshow. Notice how much more easily it is to zoom through the 20 horizontals.

While these were not the only problems I ran into, I would say these were the biggest I have run into and the most common in terms of photographers having multiple of these problems and not having a clue that these were even problems.

Then of course there are a few schmucks that talk about “vision” and “style” with out any concept of what these are. In response to a photographer only shooting 18MM: “18MM is a lens not a style!” And “Vision” is much more then a loose concept, it is complete, it is done before the first shot is taken.

It may seem I am being overly harsh, and perhaps I am, but someone should be. I would like to add that working with the photographers is the greatest joy in what I have chosen to do, and when photographers take the time and effort to show the work they have labored so hard to create, I feel a responsibility to provide feedback that is constructive and useful. Too often, just giving out praise without critical observations can be more detrimental than the harshest criticism. When a portfolio is submitted to me I feel I owe the photographer the respect of real feedback, which many times can slow the portfolio review process. Anyone submitting a portfolio to me should expect real feedback, and if they can’t accept it they shouldn’t submit.

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2 responses to “Jason Pagan: Training a Photographer

  1. Incisive and practical tips, especially for someone at the beginning stages of trying to make a career as a PJ/documentary photographer. I’ve been at this for 2 years now, and find it frustrating that editors often provide no or little feedback. This page, I think, I will go back to from time to time, just to remind myself of what the basics should be. Thanks.

  2. thanks for clearing this up. i was wondering myself already. 🙂

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