FZ: Tell us your story about photography - how did you come to be interested and then fully immersed in it?
AL: I’ve always been fascinated by photography. I remember early on, my parents had an old Polaroid 600 camera that they would let me use from time to time. Couldn’t really afford more than that at the time. Fast forward a few years and I start looking for creative outlets. I couldn’t draw, paint or really - do anything artistic... at least that is what I thought.
I all but gave up on anything creative. I was just documenting life with a Sony DSC-P51 point and shoot. I then met and started dating my soon to be wife. During one of our “getting to know you” dates, she asked what kind of interests I had. I mentioned photography and offered to show her some of what I had saved on the computer. I didn’t think much of it, but she really liked a lot of the images she saw and encouraged me to take it more seriously.
I had the opportunity to get a good deal on a Nikon N90s and 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 lens with SB-22 speed light. A pro photographer in my area was getting rid of some of her gear and sold the whole lot back in early 2000’s for $100. OK...I’m going to take this seriously! And I used that kit for quite a while. Saving up what I could, learning as much as I could from books and other photographers.
Then in 2005, I had just enough to upgrade my camera. A brand new Nikon D50. For a short time I used the old Nikon 35-70 from the N90s. Not satisfied with the range of the lens, I spent a little more and was able to finally afford a Tamron 28-200mm f/3.8-5.6. And for a few years I shot that kit everywhere. On vacations, our pets, family events. Loving the instant feedback. My learning curve increased almost overnight. I was learning more and more everyday about photography, gear, people….it was great. I wanted something faster, and took the recommendation of many and purchased a used Nikon 50mm f/1.8D.
Fast forward 2008. I’m honing my skills, getting better and confident enough to share my work outside of showing them to my wife. A co-worker talks to me about how expensive it is for senior pictures and wished there was an alternative. It spurred me to think about getting into the profession. I analysed everything, did the research and in an effort to provide the people in my area a lower cost alternative for portraits, I start my business, Best Light Photographic LLC in June 2008. Having studied many famous photographers, I took the name from a W. Eugene Smith quote, paraphrased “What is the best light? Any light that is available!”
From there I got jobs, enhanced the portfolio...but made the classic mistake. I tried to be everything for everyone. I was a jack of all trades, but never had the time to master any of them. Hell, I started out as the “available light” portrait guy. Struggled on some jobs because I didn’t know understand the importance and need for getting that little SB-22 off the camera or diffused. I still had a lot to learn. With the support of my family, I pushed through and learned what I needed to learn to be successful. I enhanced my knowledge not only of the gear I would need, but of the shooting techniques, people skills, business acumen.
Still going strong on the business front. Have some returning corporate clients, shoot lots of sports and events. Get some portrait work mainly during the senior school seasons. I’m actively looking for more creative ways of using photography….always moving forward, forever learning!
FZ: What are the most important lessons you have learned in photography?
AL: Everyone has something to teach you
No matter how experienced or inexperienced a person may seem - everyone has a story to tell and a way of doing things that we can learn from. I never dismiss anyone. Even if everything they do ends up not being successful, you have the opportunity to see what mistakes they made and use that as a learning tool for yourself. As the old saying goes, we learn more from the failures than the successes.
What I like as a photographer is not always going to align with what the client/viewer likes
I learned quite early on that what I find as an excellent image does not always fall in line with the expectations of the client or viewer. It taught me that photography really is art and art as a subjective thing is something that we all will have a different perspective on. Doesn’t mean one person is right or wrong, just different.
Don’t try to be everything to everyone (jack of all trades master of none)
I tried to shoot everything under the sun when I first started out. In a way it helped me weed out those things I like to shoot from those I didn’t. The nasty side effect being, though - I stretched too thin my capabilities and often over promised and under delivered. I was decent, but not good or great. Love for the art was lost in the mindset of I have to produce and make this successful without actually defining what success was, or better yet...having a poorly formulated definition. At first, success was defined as “was I getting paid”. I retooled my thinking into, “I need to produce a product that not only does the viewer/client like...but am I proud of what I’m producing. If I put out a quality product, the jobs will come.
I’m only limited by my imagination
Technical perfection is something that we all can achieve. The limit is not in the gear we use or the technology. The limit is what I can imagine. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility. If I can think it, I can create it!
Go Out Open and Empty and Visual Pushups - Jay Maisel
Jay Maisel is probably one of my favorite street photographers producing today. I first heard about Jay when I had a KelbyOne membership and started looking around the courses for street photography videos. The courses were not about gear, exposure settings but about theory, mindset, attitude. Just all kinds of wisdom bombs, if you will. For certain jobs, I have a set plan of what I want to get, usually at the direction of a client or art director. When shooting for me, for pleasure, I remember Jay’s quote - “go out open and empty”. In a nutshell, if you go out with a preconceived notion of what you want to get - let’s say it is a bicyclist going down the street - you would spend all your time looking for that and missing out on the 20 other great things that are going on. Let the flow of the world around you pull you into a direction and capture what is given to you. Another great one from Jay, is something I still do to this day. I never leave the house without a camera of some kind. I do my daily “visual pushups”. I exercise my brain to think photographically all the time. This way I do not get stale or complacent. I credit visual pushups and street photography for enhancing my professional photography because they both have been great tools in helping me learn to read people and situations. Have anticipation for when something might happen greatly increases your chances of getting a shot not only in the street, but at an event, during a wedding or reception.
I wrote a blog post about my thoughts on Jay Maisel. More in depth reading can be done at the link below if you are interested.
Develop a thick skin
No one likes to be told that they suck, their work is garbage. Sometimes it is, other times it may just be misunderstood or underappreciated. No matter!! Push through the nay sayers. Use their criticism to analyse your work, enhance it….make it better...make it even more different. Only through the continual evolution of your craft and artistic vision do you grow.
FZ: If you could travel anywhere tomorrow as a photojournalist to cover a story for National Geographic where would you go and why?
AL: Japan. I’ve always had a pull toward the far east. Even from an early age, I would watch the Kung Fu Theater on USA channel. PBS would play Seven Samurai and other Kurosawa films. I started my formal martial arts training at the age of 10. I studied Hapkido, Shotokan, and Judo. Digging deeper into the cultures, I studied Buddism, Taoism, Zen, Chinese, Japanese and Korean culture. I always seemed to have a pull there, but never had the opportunity to go and experience it first hand.
I’d love to go there and just experience the cultures from the big cities like Tokyo, to the smaller villages in the more remote prefectures. Not only would it be a great opportunity to take some great images, but I would be immersed into a culture that I know very well, but not intimately.
FZ: You’ve used a lot of different camera equipment since we have known you on FZ, tell us about your favourite and least favourite gear experiences.
I don’t think that I’ve had a lot of very bad experiences. Every system I’ve used has had their strengths and weaknesses and deciding between them was very difficult. If I had to pick, I’d say the most disappointing experience was with the early Fuji X system. I absolutely loved the image quality and the analog control systems. The overall system speed, auto focus speed and system quirks had me move away from it into the Micro Four Thirds camp.
My favorite experiences have come from my Nikon systems. My most favorite camera of all time is the Nikon Df. It just fits my personal shooting style and ethos very well. It has a wide range of capabilities of accepting lenses from all generations of Nikon glass. Followed closely behind the Df, is the olympus PEN-F. Having used many Micro Four Thirds cameras in a personal and professional manner, the PEN-F reminds me of a mirrorless version of my Nikon Df.
Most recently, I have been finding the joys in using manual focus lenses in Nikon F mount on both the Df and adapted to the Olympus PEN-F.
FZ: If you could pick 5 different photos from your work to be the only ones in your portfolio, which would you chose?
AL: Brian Shaw - Strongman. In the sports area, this image of one of the top Strongmen in the world, Brian Shaw, is one of my favorites. You see the power, the determination and the perceived ease at which this man dead lifted this tremendous weight.
Warrior Painter. This was a spec piece, with very specific requirements from the client. This work allowed me to use my own creativity to show an artist and their personality. This is how I prefer to shoot portraits. Not just a well lit image of the subject, but showing a part of them and their personality in the finished product.
The Wedding Kiss. 50 years ago, this couple married and decided to renew their vows. I was honored that they asked me to shoot their ceremony. The church gave great opportunity to use it’s colorful background to make the couples kiss memorable. The framing, lighting...everything just comes together so well. The couple loved this shot and is now living in their home as a large canvas.
Zombie. A local, annual event the Zombie Walk Columbus allows those who are interested in dressing up and walking the streets as a zombie the opportunity to do so. The event collects money and canned food for donation to a local food pantry. This image captivates me as we have the out of focus foreground element with the ominous zombie having spotted me in the background.
Dog In The Middle. What I think an interesting street photography shot should be. I like the monochrome conversion, the out of focus renderings as well as the depth of this image. The dog is the star, but would not be as interesting, IMHO, if the group was not encircling him.