6 Take Aways from Skips Summer School 2011 in Las Vegas Nevada

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending Skips Summer School in Las Vegas Nevada as both and attendee as well as a advocate for The F.I.L.M. Project.  Skip Cohen is one of the industry’s MEGA veterans.  I think he has been eating, drinking, breathing, sweating, snorting, and living photography for twice as long as I’ve been alive.  He worked with Poloroid when that stuff called film was used to make images.  He is the former CEO of Hasselblad, and president of a number of photo related businesses… most of which are focused on heightening the quality of work, and success of today’s photographic professionals.  Skips Summer School is a slimmed down version of WPPI, targeted at brining in some of the most well respected photographers in the country.  Having the opportunity to learn from the industries best and get the chance to basque in their advice is invaluable for a young photographer such as myself.  I vowed to not forget everything I learned, so I’ve decided to publicly list my top 6 take aways in an attempt to keep myself accountable for following up on each of these important points.  So, for all you photographers, here is what I learned:

1) Practice, Practice, Practice….

We all hear this a million times throughout our lives, but Roberto Valenzuela made it clear as day that if we want to excel in this business, the time to practice is not during a wedding.  It must be done at home.  Every wedding we are faced with similar shooting scenarios.  A bride in a room getting ready.  A bride with a ruffly dress.  A pair of wedding rings in low light.  A bride’s dress hanging in a window.  These are all things that we see EVERY wedding, but do we know how to photograph them the best way possible?  Do I know exactly what height I need to shoot a brides dress at to make the ruffles pop and the textures jump out in the photo.  Ill tell you right now… that answer is “no.”  But imagine I got a dress, nothing special, just a white dress, and hung it in a window at home, and photographed it from every angle possible.  Up down, left right, backlit, front lit, side lit, close to the window, far from the window.  You name it. I can assure if I did that, I would have a much better approach to photographing a dress next time I walked into a bridal room.  Roberto suggested using bananas( yes, bananas!) on a light stand to pose as subjects in a photo.  The subject (the bannana in this case) does not really matter  in the image for practice, because you are there to study light.  Light matters just as much as expression.  So if you get that part sorted out, you are half way there!  Robert said he has not missed a practice session (even if only for 15 minutes) in YEARS.  Now that is something I look up to.  It clearly shows in his work: http://www.robertovalenzuelaphotography.com/

2) Get on Twitter.  Period.

I have personal conflicts with this one, but I’m guessing that is just because I’m a bit mad at thetrolls who”follow” me on twitter just to get me to look at their profiles and hopefully follow back.  Twitter has constantly been on the back of my mind, and I consistently  find ways to talk myself out of taking the time to do it.  Scott Bourne broke it down like this… Just. Do. It.  But here’s the thing.  Don’t do it with the intent of tooting your own horn.  He suggested to use it as a means of finding people in need, and offering help, and/or hyping up others in the industry.  The more you reach out and put others on a pedastal, the more you can expect to have people follow you.  Think about the last time someone complimented you.  Were you like, “Na, dude… no waaay am I gonna follow you on Twitter!”?  Likely not.   You probably wanted to create a new custom handshake and make them your bestie.  The more people that value your input, the more you can expect to be mentioned in the real world, and that my friends, leads to referrals.  Scott’s advice was to not go online and talk about your spicy hot dog lunch or the radical fluids that flew out of your child’s orifices , but rather mention something cool that someone else did, or answer someone’s question.  You can set searches that will allow you to find individuals in your market who have questions about things you know… and ta-da! you save the day by replying with something simple, and easy.  Clearly I have over simplified this task in this writeup, but hopefully you get the idea.

3) Study your BAD images….

and then study them again.  We learn nothing from our master pieces.  This was stated by at least three different speakers during the show.  Why do we always look at our best images and then rub our glory hands all over our bodies?  That does nothing to help us improve our skills (but it feeeels soooo goooood!).  By looking at our bad images, we can say… “why did that photo suck?” and then the answer to that question will give us some insight as to what we should avoid during our next shoot.  Roberto Valenzuela suggested printing a proof sheet and red marking every failed image.  Not to beat ourselves to death, but to always understand we can improve, and the path to improvement is through our bad work, not our good.

4) The law of opposites.

Matthew Jordan Smith made a subtle point that I had never conscientiously recognized.  Opposite images compliment each other.  In album designs, look for images that are different.  If a subject is static in one image, pair it with an image with the couple moving.  If a photo is primarily orange in color, try to pair it with an image that contains blues or purples (think opposites on the color wheel here).  If an image is a broad-scaping landscape, pair it with a closeup/headshot.  I’ve never been conscientious of this when designing albums, but you can bet It will be on the front of my mind next time I’m putting a book together.

African Elephant at Sunset

African Elephant at Sunset

5) Continue to shoot personal projects.

Several photographers mentioned this, but Matthew Jordan Smith nailed this home with a veritable sledgehammer.  We all strive to make money with a camera.  But the money is not why we picked up a camera in the first place.  I LOVE landscape photos.  In fact, I think my style is a derivative of this love for landscapes, but I honestly could not tell you the last time I went out looking for landscape images for fun (well maybe the trip to Africa counts!).  It is in these images, and these experiences, that we find our inspiration and our creativity without the pressure of a deliverables and money.  The release of the business element will keep your photography fun, and help one to find inspiration in the paid portion of your business.  This is something I vow to remember.

6) Find a mentor.

No one mentioned this formally during the conference, but it was so clear to me that this was important.  Each and every speaker I heard, mentioned another individual who was their guiding light into the photography business.  Clay Blackmore was taught by classical portrait artists, and it absolutely shows in his work.  He is now one of top dogs in the business giving lectures across the country and having claim to have taken over 10,000 portraits in his carreer.  Not too many can say that.  I think I’m at 47.  This is not a ground breaking industry.  We are not re-creating something that has never been done. We are not physicists trying to find the 8th dimension, so why do we insist on figuring this all out on our own?  Having a mentor is not about sucking information out of someone, it is about being a valuable resource and assistant for someone far more experienced than you, and in return you are provided with a view of a vast bank of knowledge and experience.  I think that if I can take that mentality, and attempt to make myself of value to someone else, the rewards will be 10 fold to the work that I put in.

So, those are my main take aways from Skip’s.  Hopefully this provides a little insight and maybe inspires someone to attend next year.  Its an awesome event, filled by even more awesome people.  If you take your photography business in the wedding or portrait industry seriously… I highly recommend it… and while you are there, check out our F.I.L.M project booth. 😀

Now… off to conquer my 6 new goals! Shoot shoot, tweet tweet, red line red line, lay out lay out, have fun have fun, help help!

  • Susannah Gill - October 14, 2011 - 6:41 am

    Colson! I loved reading this, mostly the #3. I do this a ton and I think need to do it even more! It helps so much, you just have to put the thick skin on! Twitter…Im with you on this n but I like the suggestions! Im going to try it out!

    Thank you so much for sharing such great info! I emailed it out to some other photographers I know! So goal number 6, well you just did that one!


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