Photography tips

Slight course correction

The life of an artist is constantly changing.  Art is a reflection of feelings and desire.   Those are required to create art.  The art created under yesterday’s sun was wonderful.  But today the air seems fresher, the flowers more fragrant, and the sun just a little brighter.  Art will change with the new day.

I started doing photography as just something to do after I retired.  I fell in love with it, and I sucked at it.  Then I started playing, learning, enjoying what I could create, and everything started changing.  It’s not just something to do anymore.  It’s something I HAVE to do!  The joy of sitting back after a special shot comes to life and feeling it stir my heart is like a drug.  A runner’s high.

Some might say I still suck at it.  Don’t care.  I love it.

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But, as I said, the life of an artist is always changing.  My love for the art is over powering any desire to do photography that others want.  I don’t feel I have to do weddings, family pictures, or any of the ‘typical’ photography.  I just want to create.  Make my art.  Learn.  Excel.  Grow.

So, don’t be shocked when I turn down the opportunity to shoot, even for money.  If it’s an artistic project you are bringing to me I’ll have a rate but at least I’ll be loving it because it’s art.  If it’s anything else I do know some of the best photographers in Arizona and can get you connected for what you want.

That leaves me to my final point.

If you want to model for me.

To be totally creative requires a model or models that are totally comfortable with everything.  Looks that are not flattering, or pretty.  Dark, bright, colorful, black and white, implied, nude, no makeup, outlandish makeup, whatever comes to mind or what idea is being created at the time.  So, if you are someone who enjoys my art and wants to be a part of it, keep in mind that I expect you to be comfortable with whatever we need to do for any given concept.  It’s always classy of course, but I need a canvas that has no limits.

It’s okay, go into the light!

Before we were born we saw light.  It was pink and out of focus, but it was there.  We’ve had light all around us and for most people it’s all about being able to just see in the dark, or it comes from the sky, or we flip a switch and we can see.  It’s as natural as breathing and we take it for granted the same way.

Photography is all about the light.  All photography uses it…great photography manipulates it, paints with it, makes us see what the photographer, what the artist, wants us to see.

IMG_8176-1It could be as simple as a black photo with a hint of an eye showing.  It often uses light to draw lines with the shadows to bring out a shape, a form, or lack of one.  Light is the essence of the art of photography.

If it’s a bride we can wash her in warm pastels or put a baby in beautiful sunshine.  Endless options.

When I have the opportunity to share my knowledge of photography I always show how everything I do revolves around the light.  Studio lighting, location lighting for day and night, and playing with the light in all situations.  I often find myself stepping back and wondering just how I can use the light I have to make this into an interesting picture.  It’s not like a math problem to me.  There are no rules.  Actually, there are plenty of rules and I break them every chance I get because I ignore them.  Knowing your lights, modifiers, and gear to a degree where you just know what they can do is all you ever need.  I light a subject with my gut more than my brain.  What is going to make the shot just crawl off the page and grab you by the ears!  Okay, maybe not that strong, but keep your eye on the shot and wonder.

So many people take pictures that are, well, just pictures.  Selfies, but using a photographer.  Sorry, but yuck.

If people look at a picture and they are moved by it.  If they wonder what the person is thinking in the picture.  If they feel what the subject is feeling then I think it was worth the time, the thought, or gut, that went into it.

When someone sees a picture I’ve taken of a nude or implied subject and the response is ‘that’s hot’ then they aren’t seeing what I intended at all.

I’m thinking that great photography is broken down into two groups.  People who know how to use the light to paint an amazing picture with their camera, and those that know enough about art to appreciate it for the art that it is.

If you are a photographer – know every aspect of lighting.  Period.  And you will be amazing!

The perfect picture?

One day I was driving along and the phone rang.  I pushed the button on the steering wheel and said “Hello?”.  (that still sounds so scifi to me)

The person on the other end introduced himself as a fellow photographer and how he was calling to help me out.  I’d posted something somewhere about how I figured out a little quirk in Lightroom and passed it along.  He’d obviously read my answer wrong and was planning to help me out of a problem I wasn’t having.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to see and hear how others practice photography and I still appreciate that he took the time to track down my number and call.

So, he starts in with camera settings, light meter readings, how to arrange the lights, and goes on and on about how to set up a shot.  He kept inserting the line “I’m sure you do it this way” and then went on some more about arranging the lights and getting the sun at the right angle and the best times to shoot.  Then he got back into measuring the light to the nearest quarter fStop and speeds.

He went on for about 5 minutes without really stopping to ask me any questions.  He was telling me what he assumed I already knew and practiced I guess.

I waited and listened.  And drove.  Everything he said was completely right.

Then he finished and it was quiet.

I said, “Would you like to know how I do it?” and he replied, “Sure!”

“I wet my finger, stick it in the air, look to see where the shadow falls, and then do what feels right for the shot I want to get”

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Neat chart. Great for learning how it works. Learn it well and it becomes like muscle memory and it all just works.

Silence.

He seemed a bit shocked that I ‘shot from the hip’ and didn’t do all of the required steps to get the perfect picture.

My idea of a perfect picture isn’t one like the camera sees, or even one I see with my eyes.  It’s just ever so slightly surreal or different that it’s not just a picture anyone else could take going down a check list.  Nothing wrong withthat of course…great work is produced that way and I’m not knocking it.  I’ve tried it and it just didn’t work for me.

Of course I rely on my knowledge of the camera.  I know what ‘most’ of those buttons are for and how to get the camera to do exactly what I want it to.  And yes, there is a light meter IN the camera, and yes I USE it for example.  But everything else is gut feeling.  I know what the lights going to look like at various angles, with a certain lens, I know how the exposure will look with the balance of speed and fStop a certain way.  Not just text book ‘know’, but I can feel it.  The camera becomes an extension of my thoughts and the flow of light is all I think about.

If I wanted a shot that looked dead on life like I’d do all of that technical stuff. I’m more of a shoot from the hip kinda’ guy I guess.  It takes a while to really ‘feel’ your camera and lights, but it’s a real joy to me when I meet a new friend (camera) and get to know it deeply.

I’ve had some photographers tell me that it’s great to get the picture perfect right in the camera.  I agree.  But I haven’t found a camera that takes the picture the way I consider perfect so it’s a combination of gut feeling and then seasoning the shot in post production.

I do think knowing how it works technically is very important.  To many people THINK they can become great photographers without bothering with fStops and shutter speeds…whatever they are.  I think shooting from your heart makes for a beautiful picture.  You need to understand your equipment intimately, to get what you really want from it.

This, of course, is a blog, and my opinion.  Not what’s right or wrong.  Season to your own taste.  Always.

Creative juices…with pulp

Being moody doesn’t make you an artist. But almost certainly an artist will be moody. And by artist I mean anyone who creates. Writers have writers block, painters may sit in front of a canvas for hours just staring. Closer to home, a photographer may sit and stare at their last shoot and can’t see anything they want to edit.

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On good days the juices are flowing, planets are in line, wine is just the right year, something. Something clicks and you wake up and can’t wait to get to it. Paint flies on the canvas, words flow like water, or Photoshop is so busy your computer fan is on high. The problem is, we can’t control what days will be creative. We can’t put a finger on the trigger for the same reason we can’t control or really predict the weather. A lot of things can stop the juices and other things give it a fist full of pulp to give you special days.

The thing that keeps me sane during the down times is knowing it happens. It’s not the end, it’s how it works. Of course you should worry because, as we all know, if you worry about something it never happens.

I have found that the best way to come back strong is to accept the down days and go off to do something that’s mindless or at least not creative in the same way as my photography.  This is often when I come up with new ideas.  Write them down for a juicer day.  The more I accept those days the stronger the creative days seem to be.

I also have plenty of my favorite images hanging on the wall or popping up on screens to remind me that yes…I’m a creative…maybe just not today.

‘Breaking Bad’ habits

The break

 
After taking a couple of weeks off from shooting over the holidays I discovered something interesting about just how I dived back in.  It was different.  In some ways drastic.

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Model: Ashley Sand

I’ve always been one to stand back once in a while and look at how something is being done and try to think of a better way, faster way, or a way that might come up with better results.  It’s almost always a fruitful exercise that doesn’t take much work.  Although a few face/palm V8 moments happen when you consider how wrong you might have been doing something.  That just makes you consider what else to look at.

During the break I also sold a Canon 7D I wasn’t using much and, to be fair and diligent, I found a program to give me the shutter count on my cameras.  I found the 7D had far more shutter activations than I thought and I dropped the price I sold it at to be fair.  It’s when I checked the 6D and found 102,000 activations in just a little over a year that got me thinking.  It’s not that I’m now stingy with my shots BUT I do consider not wasting as many.

So, back in the studio and here’s what I found different and interesting.  Not all conscious efforts.

  • The actual time in studio dropped to about an hour for the shoots.  Typically they were 2-4 hours.  I’m sure this will vary, but after doing a couple in an hour and getting some wonderful shots in that time, and 4-5 sets, I’m thinking less time certainly doesn’t mean less good shots.  The thinking between sets accelerated with ideas of how to change up the lights and get the looks I wanted from the unique faces I was working with.
  • All black and white.  This is something I’d played with a bit on and off but never for entire shoots.  In the past I used it so I could see the lights and darks and how shadows fell easier.  Of course I shoot in RAW so it’s not really B&W, but what we see on the camera back and iPad review was all in B&W.  I now do that exclusively unless the shoot is about the color and then, naturally, I shoot in color.
  • I’m doing far more directing and paying closer attention to those little things that make a shot look odd.  Elbow placement, hands, the wayward strand of hair.  I stop, fix them, and then shoot.  Instead of 20-30 shots I do 5-10.  I can see the slight annoyance with the models who like to strike a bunch of poses, but they learn very fast to give me their best first.  I expect I’ll tell them that from now on and get them really thinking when I raise the camera up to shoot.

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    Model: Ashley Sand

  • As a result of these slight changes, my shot count has come down 25-35% to usually less than 300.  Since I don’t shoot every day it’s still a drastic reduction from the 6D over the year. (BTW, 102,000 shots would be 280 shots a day for 365 days)

I think it’s always a good idea to morph your techniques once in a while.  It can change our perspective and even the outcome.  As an artist this is something that should be constant in your life.

Enjoy!  And please feel free to comment.

Learning photography…

That hard first step

Doing anything new is always exciting and a big pat of that is learning everything you can about it.  If you are passionate about anything it’s best to know all you can to enjoy it to the fullest.  Day one is the hardest.  You don’t even know what you need to know.  Kinda’ hard to ask questions at that point.  This is where curiosity and a lot of time comes in.  You have to understand the tools first.  What does every button on the camera so and how does it change the picture you are taking.  At first you don’t have to know everything perfectly, just that they are there and what they do.  Later you’ll have a need and you’ll at least know it’s possible and revisit exactly how.

Same with learning things like Photoshop and Lightroom.  Don’t learn exactly what buttons to push to get a certain thing to happen.  UNDERSTAND what that function is…and then generally remember how to get to it.

The reason I really push the generalization of knowledge over button by button exact process is that it’s very limiting and much easier to learn by feel.

The camera

 
To someone new to their camera there are SO MANY buttons and menu items.  Heck, even I don’t know all of the features of my camera and this is 4 years into it.  The manuals are NOT the place to learn about your camera.  They tend to tell you specific things and assume

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you know why you’d need that.  Setting the shutter speed or fStop is, as you might guess, very important.  The manual will tell you how.  But not WHY you might set one at f8 and the other at 1/200 of a second.  If you know the WHY and how those functions work in your camera it’ll make more sense.  It’s more like learning by knowing how something works rather then memorizing buttons and thinking that’s all you’ll need to know.

It’s a bit like a painter with his pallet.  Knowing the colors is one thing.  Knowing how to mix them to get exactly the right shades for a flower is another that doesn’t come from exact measurements but from gut feeling from just doing and knowing what results have been in the past.

If you know your camera, and that comes from a hundred hours of pointing, playing, experimenting, and shooting everything that moves or doesn’t move, then you have a tool you can walk into a situation with and know exactly what to do to get the shot you want.

I guess the point is, a single class isn’t going to make you an expert.  But it CAN show you things you can do and give you those elusive questions you didn’t know you had.  Now you’ll know what you want to learn.

Post processing

 
There are a few folks out there that insist that, in order to be great, you need to be able to take perfect pictures and not have to do anything to them to make them better right out of the camera.   More power to them.  I see them as coming from two groups.  One works very hard to make a shot look like reality with great lighting, and the other who are just to lazy to learn post processing.  Frankly, I’m not much of a fan of reality.  I’m an artist.  And I can’t think of any camera that takes pictures the way I want them to be when I’m finished.  And even if you are a wedding, or senior photographer, you’d better clean up that shot.  People want to see themselves as they think they look, not with that pimple that emerged on their noggin that morning.
IMG_8176-1Back to the point.  Learning by doing and feeling and not by keystroke and menu by menu memorization is the best way, in my opinion, of learning software.  Learn what it CAN do and not how to do it.  Anyone can figure out how.  It’s knowing it can that is what you need to remember.

So, learning Lightroom or Photoshop, or any of the computer tools should be a matter of learning what it can do, not exactly HOW to do it.  Think about it, if you didn’t know what it can do the how isn’t important.

The other very important reason to learn all you can in all aspects of photography is that your personal style will develop from those skills.  When people can recognize your pictures from others you will then have a marketable product.

If you take one of my classes expect to walk away with, ‘Wow, I know what I want to go practice and develop!’  I won’t let you take a bunch of step by step notes because you’ll leave not knowing what you can really do.  Makes little sense.

Of course, I give classes.  I highly recomend the one-on-one classes.  Learn more in the ‘Learning Photography‘ part of this site.

 

 

Who’s in charge here?!?

 

You Da Boss

 In every shoot there needs to be a leader.  If it’s a commercial shoot there is an art director running the show.  This is, no doubt, less than 1% of the shoots taking place on any given day.  Most shoots are Trades and of those many are for fun and practice.

We will be talking about those trade shoots.

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Photo by Linda Kelley

In every shoot someone needs to be in charge, someone who is watching it all and looking for opportunities to get a great shot.  This is not to say there shouldn’t be collaboration of ideas.  Some of my best work came from the creative minds of others.  This is a good time to point out that the sooner you can surround yourself with the best makeup and hair talent the better.  It’s always a mix of everyones style that make a shoot rock.

In any endeavor that involves a group of people there has to be someone guiding the group.  I think there are many reasons this needs to be the photographer.

The photographer has the rights to the images.   Why would the photographer allow a shoot to get out of hand and head in directions he or she knows are pictures they don’t want or need?

There is only one person who can see what your camera sees, you, the photographer.  You can see how the light is hitting the scene, what angles don’t have a telephone pole sticking out of someone’s head, and can move to get just the right framing.  No one else can see what you can.  That puts the entire responsibility on you to take the time to think, look, and imagine what can be done in any given situation to get that shot.  Everyone else is counting on YOU to do just that.

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Photo by Linda Kelley

 

And, last but far from least, your reputation is on the line.  You are only as good as your last shoot.  The only direction you want to go is up.  Better.  More creative.

Democracy

 

I never hesitate to try something, my idea or someone else’s on the set.  Some of what I thought were not stellar ideas turned out to totally rock.  And some turned out to be, well, not stellar ideas.

But I always call the shots.  Pun intended.  My camera is down at my side most of a shoot.  I have to see it in my head, then see it form up with the lights, and THEN I bring the camera up and start capturing it.  The constant nagging of that little voice asking, “Is there a better angle?”, “How’s the lighting look?” is always there.

Failure is an option

  To many times in the past I’ve sat down to go over a shoot at my workstation late at night, after all is shot and everyone has gone home to find myself saying, “What the hell is this!” or “What was I thinking?!?”

Failure is an option you can avoid.

So, now I’m also thinking about what I’m putting on that memory card and how my job will be to create from it.  If I shoot crappy work there is nothing Photoshop is going to help me out of.

All the more reason why YOU have to be in charge of a shoot.  Everyone is counting on YOU to bring out amazing shots from all the effort being put into it.  YOU are most likely the most experienced of the group.  You know your skills and limitations.  You know what you can do with that shot in post.

Say NO when the little voice tells you to

  One last thing, if you haven’t guessed it yet.  Say NO when that’s the answer.  Say this isn’t working when it’s not.

The finesse in saying no or this isn’t working and not hurting anyone’s feelings is a bit of a bedside manner and important to keep the creative energy and excitement high.  For me it’s usually something like ‘that’s a great idea but I can’t get the angle or lighting to make that one rock’.  I guess I take the responsibility of a failed idea on myself so it’s not an issue for anyone to feel bad about, and then move to the next set quickly to keep it rolling.  After all, there are no bad ideas…except around cliffs and rail road tracks.

Just remember, the photographer is in charge of a shoot.  Period.  As the captain you are the one that’s going down with the ship if it sinks.  It’s on you.

There are times you CAN lay down on the job though….

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Photo by Linda Kelley

For satisfaction or just fun?

Motives

  Everyone has a motive for being a photographer.  For some it’s obvious.  For some, not so much.  I find myself admiring the photographers that are in it for the satisfaction of creating something.  Generally something artistic.  Even wedding photos or new born shots can be amazing art.  Of course, there are photographers that spend hours just taking pictures without giving the slightest thought of how the light on the subjects look.  They don’t learn lighting.  And their finished product, in my opinion, isn’t much better than those cell phone shots.  These are the photographers where I just can’t put my finger on why they shoot.  Don’t get me wrong, as long as they are having fun I’m good.  Not judging, just wondering.

I think photography is very different from 20 years ago when there were far fewer cameras.  I think it’s actually easier to stand out with art than ever before.  With the flood of cameras in cell phones and social media giving us those wonderful pictures of food, cats, and selfies it makes a great photo stand out even more.  In my opinion.  There may be a thousand times more photos out there but there certainly isn’t even ten times more art.

Stringlight

This was a test to just see what it might look like.

My motive is to create artistic photos.  Art touches the mind, heart, or both.  It can bring out an emotional response.  A gasp, a tear, a smile.  That is what I shoot for.  Often I only make someone tilt their head and squint…and sometimes scratch it.  You never know if others are going to love, hate, or scratch.

In order to be creative and get results that don’t look like yesterday’s or last weeks, you always have to think about what might be interesting to try.  It might fail, but even failures usually lead to other ideas that work wonders.  Everything from finding an old wooden ammo box in the alley (thank you Linda!) to getting an email from an electronic parts/gadget store.  They can and should trigger a curiosity of how something you see can help you create something interesting.

Experiment

  The above shot of Caitlan with a light fiber going around her face was a last minute test shot to play with something I found for sale in an email.  Well, it was a ‘LIGHT’ after all and that’s what we paint with in photography, right?  And even when I shot it I wasn’t sure the test worked…until I got it in the software and started to play and this shot emerged out of the darkness.  Worth playing?

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And sometimes it’s a test shot turned art.  I was testing the lighting and normally I’d have Cassandra have her feet up to catch more curves.  I told her to relax and I kept adjusting until I got the lighting I wanted.  Then we did all the shooting of legs up and other body scape work.  When I went to edit I found a set of legs making as straight a line as a female can make and messed with it until it turned into some art I’m really proud of.  It was a test.  I was playing.

Think

  If the pictures you take today look like the ones you took last month, or last year, your motive might be just taking pictures for the fun and not the satisfaction.  If it’s for fun you can bet your pictures will look the same in 5 years.

Think about lighting.  Always!  Do something different by thinking of options.  Let your mind wander.  Set your camera down often and think about how you might improve or change up the lighting to give you something outside your comfort zone.  Hell, what’s a comfort zone!?!

Enjoy!

Compositing…easier than your think

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of compositing.  I’ve seen it done for years and I’ve played with it in the past and I wasn’t very happy with the end results much of the time.  Like anything else, it’s a ‘season to taste’ thing and someone’s style may or may not be interesting to you.  I’m starting to like my own work and that’s all anyone can expect…liking ones own work.

It’s not as hard as it seems.  There are plenty of tutorials on how to select a person out of a picture and then paste them into another with a background.  I found what I like to do it differently and for me it looks more natural.

Masking is important.  You need to know how to do that for sure, and it’s way simpler than you’d think.  By the way, when you learn masking you usually use black to paint in and white to reverse it.  Consider that a gray in the middle can also paint in with built in opacity.  It’s that kind of playing that gives you options and options are good.

Midnight slinger

Brooke Cameron – Model

Here’s an example.

Above: The fog was in the original shot…much easier that way.  Obviously the contrast and saturation was bumped and a little liquify was used to add motion to her hair and coat.  I masked the background from a layer but I didn’t select her and place her in as is usually done.  I actually did a simple brush in so that her hair wasn’t choppy.  I find this is often a preferred way for me because I can let a little of the color of a background fad into the skin or clothes around the edges.  For example, if there is fire in the background, having a little bleed into an arm on the edge shows a bit of light reflection and adds a LOT to the look.  You can also not blend in where there should be a shadow and it works well.  Main thing is to play and have fun.

Mermaid

Katrina Coon – Model – Erika Antunez of Antunez Artistry – MUA/Hair

If you look close at Katrina’s left arm and some of her belly you’ll see that I intentionally blushed some background ocean in and it looks like a fade.  This is because mermaids aren’t really real…or so they say.  So I wanted to add some subliminal wistfulness to the shot.

I simply use a brush and carefully run around the subject and with a fuzzy edge on the brush I’ve found I can get close to the skin and it looks fine.  Sometimes you might see a slight dark edge were I didn’t get that close but unless you are looking for it it’s not that noticeable to the casual viewer.  The story should keep their minds eye on the pictures as a whole and not the details.

I don’t use a lot of layers.  When I have the composition pretty much like I want it I might use a layer adjustment to make the brightness match like I want.  There is a neat way to make an adjustment layer only affect the single layer under it.  When it’s good I flatten it and then start playing with filters.  Usually the NIK Color Effects Pro.

Once done I save it back to Lightroom where I hit the Basics one more time adjusting contrast, shadows, and whites and blacks to get the look I like.

Enjoy.  Play.  And you know where I am if you have questions.

 

The three C’s of a great shoot

At first it was a bit annoying when I went into a shoot with a preconceived idea of what I wanted and others would make suggestions.  Of course, there is a time you need to have a focus on a specific look and idea for a client.  But if you are shooting for the fun of seeing what you can do and honing your skills, this is what I’ve found makes a great deal of difference in the outcome.

Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity

 
A photo shoot isn’t a good place to be shy.  If you have an idea, speak up.  And no, not all of your or anyones ideas will be used, but often even a lacking idea sparks a thread of thought that creates better ideas.  I often let the makeup artist and hair stylist chat with the model and see what they have always wanted to try.  If they come up with an idea everyone is happy with we head in that direction.

For example, this mermaid shoot wasn’t something I would have actually considered.  I’d shot for 4 years and avoided the seemingly required ‘mermaid’ shoot but they wanted to do it and I figured it was a good place to get creative.  So sure.  It became a lighting challenge where I had to envision the final scene.  My creativity contribution.  This, for me, was a LOT of fun even though the model had to take my word for it.  Trust is good.

Mermaid

So, with some communications the ideas flowed.  Everyone was creative in their own way.  The makeup artist, Erika, brought bras with shells and pearls glued to them and did some neat little scale type patterns on Katrina, the model. While they were doing makeup I started digging around in the prop room looking for things we could use and found a net hammock that worked just fine.  And, of course, Katrina did some wonderful under water type poses with my explanations of how she will be in the water with light from above.

All three Cs were using full steam in this shoot.

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In the pirate example above Rebecca and Raygan, her mother, collaborated with Rubii, the makeup artist/hair stylist and came up with the idea of a ship in her hair.  I had the ship!  So, we made it happen and it came out wonderful.  Another very creative day indeed.

Looking over any very creative shoot I’ve done it was full of communication between all involved and that lead to energetic collaboration in every aspect.  Everything from hair and makeup to lighting to props to what music we listen to while we create.

Then again, it’s those three Cs that set the mood and it becomes fun and creates the energy in the shoot.  And the energy is very important.