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Problems with Last Year's Briefs - 3 - Creative


Creative problems with the brief were a bit more subjective than technical ones, but usually they were still obvious enough that it wasn't just a case of me taking a dislike to someone's work!

Creative Problems.

"...not reading the bloody brief."

The most common issue people seemed to have was with simply not reading the bloody brief! We weren't so fussy about this to start with, but by the 2nd venue we were giving people much more information about what to expect, as well as giving them every chance to ask questions and have things explained for them. We even described quite explicitly what we meant when we said "made to measure" and "bespoke" in the fashion brief, yet time and again were handed very standard fashion shots of someone in stuff from Next and Gap. Probably my most favourite "mis-reading" was when someone handed in some very good shots of a posh restaurant, and claimed they were for the Sunday Supplement brief, as they were "the sort of shots you'd see in a Sunday supplement". That they may be, but the brief you were asked to shoot was a portrait of an actor - not some interiors of a restaurant! Suffice to say that in the real world, not reading the brief, and handing in work that's miles away from what the art director wanted is a very quick way to end your career. If in doubt ask - it's better to sound a little insecure and require extra info than to go out very cocky and come back with completely the wrong stuff.

"...If in doubt about what you're shooting in situations like this, consider how your work would look alongside the finished piece."

Another frequent mistake, which usually applied to the Education and Business Briefs, was to not put enough editorial angle into the shots. The briefs for these 2 were to produce a series of images that either answered/asked the question "Has the computer replaced the teacher in the classroom?" and in the case of the Business one, that ethics and morals can no longer be avoided in today's transparent business environment. Both these briefs require some thought, hence why we didn't specify what subject matter we wanted to see - you could illustrate these questions with still lives, environmental shots, portraits, abstracts - whatever gets the message across. The best responses we saw to these 2 briefs were thing like shady looking businessmen in front of wind farms, desolate empty room in schools with computers glowing ominously, and still life shots of documents being "swept under the carpet" and cash changing hands under a desk. By comparison, shots that were simply snaps of a classroom with lots of computers in didn't get the message across, any more that pictures of the high street with a few people walking around did. If you're working in the editorial world and have to illustrate a piece like this, usually you'd work quite closely with either the journalist who wrote it, or the art director, or both, to ensure that what you were shooting got the message across. If in doubt about what you're shooting in situations like this, consider how your work would look alongside the finished piece. If the headline to the article is "Business and Ethics - There's no hiding anymore!" and you hand in a shot of some shops on the high street (we saw this lots of times) it doesn't really help to tell the story. All it says is: "here are some shops"!

"...the problem occurred when people got carried away with their own stories."

Along with not editorialising enough, quite a few people made lots of assumptions about the subject matter which often lost something when taken out of context. Now, this is a bit of tricky one to criticise, as our briefs were by nature quite open ended. It could be argued that interpreting the briefs a certain way is fine, as no-one knows what's actually written in these articles, or what "Pat Armstrong's" music is like and so on. Fair enough - we left the briefs open ended to give you a choice of approaches. The problem occurred when people got carried away with their own stories, and overlooked the fact that the viewer of the images may not have as much information about the subject as they do, or may not be coming at it with the same outlook. A couple of times we were busily assessing some work, presuming it was for the education brief, when in fact it was supposed to be for the business brief. What happened each time was that the photographer in question created a situation which they knew about, but which the average viewer would be completely in the dark about, so when it came to assessing the work we formed our own (incorrect) assumptions. In some cases we suspect people had gone down a certain route because they'd already got some ideas in mind, and rather than adapt those ideas to fit the briefs once they got all the details, they tried to bend the briefs to fit. This tends not to work in the commercial world!

Last, but by no means least, was the very common problem of shots being ambiguous and confused in their execution, with no clear message in them. The amount of work that I would class as a "snapshot" was disturbingly high, and if you're looking to make a living as a professional photographer, in any context, snapshots are not really your domain. Ignoring technical issues of exposure, focus and so on, which I've detailed elsewhere, the biggest cause of this snapshot feeling was of people not thinking the shot through before shooting it. All too often we saw shots for the education brief that were basically a camera thrust through the door of a classroom, pop goes the flash, and you've got a shot of lots of people sitting around looking at computer screens. There's nowhere for the eye to settle, and the central message of the shot could be anything from "overcrowding in classrooms" to "students work harder at college than at school". Without a clear focal point it's very hard for the viewer to grasp what you're getting at. Whilst at college, with lots of time on your hands, and people around you to offer group critiques, this is less of a problem.

"...if you don't get the message across quickly and clearly you've essentially failed."

In the professional world images need to be clear, as the average viewer does not spend long considering each one, and if you don't get the message across quickly and clearly you've essentially failed. "Snapshots" like this (I also call them "Record" shots, as all they do is record what's in front of the camera!) were most prevalent on the education and business briefs, but I saw a fair few for the Sunday Supplement and Music briefs as well. A portrait shot can easily become unclear and ambiguous if the eye doesn't know where to settle and the relationship between the subject and their environment is badly defined. We even saw 2 people shoot the same bloke in the same location, and 1 person came back with some very dramatic portrait shots, that were fairly tightly cropped, but left room around to suggest the location; the other came back with shots of the same fella which looked like nothing more than snapshots taken a family gathering. In a nutshell, make sure that what you're trying to get across in the shot comes across clearly, and doesn't require a 5 minute explanation for everyone who views it!

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Problems with Last Year's Briefs - 2 - Production


Here's the 2nd in my series of posts about responses to last year's briefs, this one focusing on matters of production. That mythical, nebulous, yet absolutely vital side to professional photography!

Production Problems.

"Production" is a word that seems to confuse a lot of people, yet if you shoot anything at all you've been doing some production, no matter how small. In a nutshell, production refers to bringing together the right people, props, equipment and general stuff, to the right place at the right time to carry out your shoot. So this can be as simple as remembering to book a studio space at college, and not forgetting to bring your camera and something to shoot, all the way up to booking flights for a dozen crew, sorting out carnets and excess baggage, arranging for translators and location crew, plus generators, security guards and food for a crew of 12!

As far as the challenge briefs are concerned, production problems refer to issues of organisation, usually caused by people being freaked out by only having 3 hours to do things in! There's a bit of a cross-over into the creative side of things as well, but I'll try not to cover stuff twice.

"...In the context of the brief it's no skin off my nose if someone decides to quit - it usually means I get to go home early!"

I only encountered a couple of people across 12 colleges who actually gave up on the brief. Both times their excuses were pretty lame - and were very easily countered with suggestions like: "well, everyone else is managing to shoot in the rain", or "why didn't you try a different location then, if that one was no good". In the context of the brief it's no skin off my nose if someone decides to quit - it usually means I get to go home early, as there'll be less work to critique! If it were a real brief, then telling the person who commissioned the work that you've "given up because it was drizzling a bit, so there's no photos sorry" would be met with open mouthed incredulity, and it's unlikely you'd ever get called for work again. I made frequent mentions in my talk of improvising when things don't go according to plan (which is about 90% of the time), and it's a vital skill to learn. So many things can change from your initial idea to what happens on the day that you have to develop good skills of adapting and evolving as you go along.

"...there's no excuse for handing in the same shot 8 times."

The art of editing your own work is something that takes years to perfect, and it's also something that probably comes under the umbrella of creative problems, but I'm sticking it in here anyway! We suggested in the guidelines that 4 or more images would be sufficient, and most people handed in between 4 and 10 shots. There were a few people who only handed in 1 or 2 shots, and this would be more of a problem than the few people who handed in 20-odd, as it gives the art director very little to play with. More of an issue were people who handed in effectively the same shot in every frame, varying nothing more than a slight angle, or possibly cropping in a bit tighter. Again, this gives an art director very little to work with, and is as bad as only handing in one or two images.

There are so many things that you can do just by changing the relationship between the camera and the subject that excuses about not having enough time or equipment are not really acceptable. Get above your subject, get below them, hide them behind things, shoot through things, frame them within things, move the camera round or move the subject round whilst shooting, shoot out wide, or shoot very close in, and so on. All of this can be done without changing locations or adding extra equipment such as lighting, and once you start to bring those extra factors in the possibilities become almost endless. In short there's no excuse for handing in the same shot 8 times, and you should be able to produce a wide range of shots without even leaving the location you first started in.

"...your images are not a perfect work of art that may never be tampered with."

All of this variety is there to give the art director something to work with when they put the pages together, and here we bump into another recurring problem - not allowing for your images to be "used". Too many people shot things without taking into account what I'd told them about Double-Page-Spreads (don't put any details dead centre - they'll get lost in the fold between the pages) and too many people shot things that left no room for things like text or graphics to be added afterwards. In the commercial world, be it editorial, advertising or other it's vital to remember that your images are not a perfect work of art that may never be tampered with. They are in fact raw material for the art director to muck about with as required. To this end be careful of shooting things which are too fixed - handing in shots that have already been cropped to a panoramic format, or converted to Black and White, limits the options quite a lot. By all means do things like panoramic crops or grayscale conversions, but hand in plain versions as well in case the art director doesn't like what you've done.

It seems a little unfair to criticise students for what are called "production values" (the physical elements that make up the shot - clothes, location, model etc) but the fact that a few people produced outstanding results in this area proves that it's possible. One of the easiest ways for people like me in the commercial world to spot student work is because of it's low production values - shots look like they were done with mates rather than models, clothes don't look very well styled, make-up is scarce if used at all, locations tend to be obvious or cheap and so on. Probably one of the best ways to make your work stand out, and appeal to the commercial world is to pay attention to these production values, and make them as polished and professional as possible. Now, we understand that given 3 hours, and very little warning, it's asking a bit much to magic up a professional model, studio, wardrobe, hair and make-up and the rest from nowhere, but that's half the point of the challenge! You'd be surprised at how often we're expected to make do and improvise with what we can find here in the "real world".

"...The ones who impressed us with their production values simply used what they had better."

The fact that a decent number of people managed to produce work (usually for the fashion or Sunday Supplement briefs) which looked polished and professional proves it can be done. In every case they'd made maximum use of what they had to hand, and thought things through carefully. There was a deliberate trap in the Sunday Supplement brief, which was the list of previous snappers who've shot it. Handing in shots of one of your mates just lounging about at home, in the clothes you found them in, lit with direct on-camera flash, doesn't quite conjure up the same feel as something shot by Rankin or Lorenzo Agius. The ones who impressed us with their production values didn't have more money to spend than the others, nor did they have more time, they simply used what they had better. Although a softbox, and a full set of location lighting would be very handy for a shoot of this nature, you could get fairly close by simply using soft light wherever you may find it - in open shade, or windowlight for example. Likewise, locations don't have to be lavish and expensive, they just need to not feel cheap and nasty, or obvious and banal. One of the best entries we saw for this brief was of someone who'd blatantly shot her friend at home, but by changing clothes several times, framing the shots very carefully against what backdrops she had, and using simple lighting, she produced a very polished set of images. The point being that nothing she did was beyond the reach of anyone else - it didn't require much more time, or equipment, just a bit of thought and consideration before pressing the shutter.

"...Lunch? What were you thinking?"

And without sounding like a complete fascist, who on earth were those odd people at a few colleges who, on being given the details of the brief at 12, and told they had 3 hours in which to do the entire thing, went off and had lunch? Lunch? What were you thinking? You've got 3 hours from start to finish - leave off the pies for now fatty and get the job done! I love lunch, me, but I've missed more than I could ever count because circumstances dictated that I had to get the job shot there and then. It tastes better when you've built up an appetite, trust me!
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Problems with Last Year's Briefs - 1 - Technical


Although over 140 students completed last year's brief, from 12 different colleges, and they did so with an enormous range of approaches, there were a number of recurring faults that we saw time and time again. I'd like to spend a little time going through these, in the vain hope that we'll see less of them next time round....

The problems fall roughly into 3 categories, technical, creative, and production, and I'll deal with each in it's own post.

Technical Problems.

"...if the assignment had been real, up to 1/3 would be rejected"

Perhaps the most disappointing experience from the whole roadshow (in fact, probably the only disappointing thing, if you overlook the Chinese meal Dave and I had in Plymouth) was the technical ability of a lot of students entries. If the assignment had been real, anything up to 1/3 of the shots submitted could have been discarded straight away as unpublishable due to technical errors. The sort of thing I'm talking about is pretty elementary; focus, exposure, camera shake, clumsy lighting and so on - nothing advanced, and nothing that can't be learnt fairly quickly, either in college, from friends, or even online. There's a time and place for breaking the "golden rules" of photography, but remember that if you're shooting something for an editorial assignment then fundamentally you're trying to communicate a message to the viewer. Anything that detracts from this is not going to help you, or them. A shot that is very dark can be very effective, but only if used intentionally, likewise, a shot with some motion blur can have lots of impact. The key thing is to use what's appropriate, and there's a world of difference between an image that's underexposed and suffering from camera shake, and something that's shot low-key with intentional blur. The best way to learn these technical basics (which old-fashioned geezers like me would simply call the craft of photography) is to find someone who knows, and get them to teach you, and thereby make it as hands on as possible. Failing that, here are a few online resources:

Basics of Lighting: Strobist 101

Understanding Histograms: Luminous Landscape

Preventing Camera Shake: Shutter speed/focal length - Look towards the bottom for the "rule of thumb"

"...there really should be no excuse for handing us blank CD's"

Less common, but equally important were problems relating to the presentation and handing in of the images. By the time we'd got to the 2nd venue we were giving all participants of the challenge a full run down of what they needed to hand in to us, and when, plus this information was available on the printed sheet. There really shouldn't have been any excuse for people to hand us blank CD's, with unlabelled images on them, which then either can't be opened, or turn out to be too huge for my laptop to work with! Asking you all to name your files properly, and present them in a certain way may seem like simply being fussy, but it has major applications in the real world. In the scenarios we were running - that of a rush, last minute job - simple matters like being able to open the discs properly, along with the files, become very important indeed.

"...make sure everything you hand over is idiot proof"

You may be under the impression that in the case of a last minute job such as this one, the art director would be waiting at the door for you to arrive, and will take the disc or drive straight from you. I won't deny that this can happen now and again, but it's much more likely that you'll give the disc to a courier, who'll drop it off, or you'll drop it off yourself at the front desk/courier desk of the office in question. In these circumstances, having a blank disc, in a plain envelope means your valuable work is not going to move one inch from where you place it! Make sure everything you hand over is clearly labelled, and as idiot proof as you can make it. It's a good practice to verify your images by hand - by this I mean put the disc or drive back in the computer once you've created it, and check that everything (or at least, some things) can definitely be opened. If you were dropping off your work at a magazine or newspaper office, and hadn't checked this, the odds are you'd be quite some distance away by the time the disc had worked it's way to the right desk, and the art director won't be a happy bunny if they can't even open the shots!

"...make sure the relevant shots are easy to find"

This habit needs to be extended down to the files themselves. Make sure that the relevant shots are easy to find - I got handed several key drives that had stacks of stuff on them, on which I had to spend some time rummaging around for the right shots. Please don't interpolate your files upwards - there really is no need to these days, pretty much anything that has a 6 MegaPixel chip or higher will produce good images for publication, and that even covers some camera phones! I had a few files handed in that were in the region of 160,000 pixels x 120,000 pixels. When you consider that a 6MP image is only 2,000 x 3,000 you can imagine what trying to open one of those did to my computer! Renaming the files seemed to cause all sorts of problems, so here's a quick guide how to do it in both Windows and Mac:

Renaming a file in Windows

Renaming a file in Mac

Obviously, we ask you to rename the files with your names so that we can easily identify them afterwards, but it's a very good practice to get into numbering or naming your shots in a certain way, as it makes things so much easier to find afterwards. You may want to get really clever and start embedding IPTC or other metadata in the files, even going as far as doing it when you download them to the computer, which many programs will let you do. Here's how:

Embedding IPTC data in Photoshop/Bridge

Embedding IPTC data in Lightroom

Embedding IPTC data in Aperture

One last thing about files - when you've renamed them, please make sure that they still have a file extension at the end - either JPEG, TIFF, PSD or whatever's appropriate. I got handed perhaps a dozen entries that had been renamed, but without this extension, and only a handful of programs will open them happily, most need you to tack on the ".jpg", ".tiff" and so on for them to work.
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