A Photographers Interview with Michael James

Please tell us about yourself as a person and as a photographer.  Where did you grow up and what sparked your desire to photograph?   Were you active with the photography department in high school?  Where are you living now?

I grew up in South Jersey. Medford, NJ to be exact. I spent summers on the Jersey Shore and was always interested in artists that would paint landscapes/portraits on the boardwalk. I could watch for hours as they created beauty right before my eyes. Photography, however, wasn’t something that interested me at the time. I tried my hand at drawing and painting, but I was always too technical and so critical on my own work that I just gave up.  I hate doing things unless I can do them very well. It’s the curse of perfectionism.

I had no interest in photography when I was young even though my father was an avid amateur photographer.  He even created a dark room on one side of our garage.  Oddly, he is seemingly uninterested in photography ever since everything went digital.  He has only ever bothered to get low end point and shoots for candid shots here and there. He even knows photoshop quite well, but has no interest in anything but snapshots. I guess I picked up where he left off.

Can you describe the defining moment or image that made you want to become a photographer?

It was a journey, this will be the longest winded answer of the entire interview because for me there was no “ah ha” moment for getting into photography. I’ve just always been taken back by movies and visual effects.  My Dad was a Star Trek fan and naturally, I got hooked with him at a young age. I enjoyed science fiction like Star Trek and Star Wars. The defining movie for me as a kid though was summer of ’82 with the release of both Blade Runner and TRON. TRON was the  movie that put me over the edge. It is what sparked my obsession with computers and naturally, computer graphics. I spent quite a bit of time programming sprites across the screen with a TIMEX Sinclair.  The whole sci-fi visual effects world just inspired me.  Sports changed all that though.  Once I started excelling in sports it consumed all my spare time and I put computers and geeky graphics stuff on the back burner for over a decade.

Fast forward many years through a brief detour through corporate america and I entered back into the realm of graphics when I was working in advertising. I was both creating and selling ad campaigns.  My role was creative ideas and I was the “pitchman” that had to do the presentations to the board of directors, CEO/CFO & marketing departments. We focused on smaller niche markets because we knew we’d never be able to compete with the larger ad firms out there servicing larger companies.  We mostly dealt with small regional banks, community banks, credit unions, local car dealerships (pure hell) and even funeral homes (yes, they advertise on cable/radio, etc).

My partners were the ones handling graphics, photography, audio and video production while I dealt with clients and managed their expectations from the initial pitch through final approval and media buys.  (So if you watch “Mad Men”, you know why I love that show!!!).

Over time I found myself interested in learning how to edit video with Avid, then Final Cut Pro as well as graphics creation / web design with Adobe and Macromedia products. I became more and more enamored with photography through the process of taking a campaign from initial ideas to the final product. I really enjoyed the creative process of taking a client’s needs and then crafting a campaign with creative ideas that manifested into digital assets (video/animation/photography) that then aired on local cable, radio or print. It was very satisfying, but the competition was getting tougher every year and keeping a team of creatives intact was more challenging than managing clients.  It ended as you’d expect, like a boy band break up with none of us doing as well on our own as we did together. C’est la vie. I actually knew forging on alone would be pointless so I changed gears.

In that time frame I shifted into doing rehabs.  Basically buying very run down properties, fixing them & reselling or renting them (yes, this eventually leads into becoming a photographer). Eventually I was doing that full time and I found that great real estate photography was instrumental in rapid re-sales or rentals.  It was then that I decided to begin shooting my own properties. The photographer I was using just couldn’t tackle the exposure issue.  It was that exposure challenge (dramatic exposure difference between interior and exterior causing under/over exposure issues) that drove me into photography full force.

I began to get deeply technical about photography and found I enjoyed the ever constant challenge the exposure issue presented. So in short, I was becoming a photographer out of necessity to solve that exposure issue.  The better my photos got, the faster my properties sold or rented.  I was quite obsessive about it.  I hadn’t even considered photography as a profession at that point.  The correlation to good photography to showings, sales, rentals was so strong that I was determined to make mine stand out from the rest of my competition. In hindsight, what I shot in 2003-2005 sucks compared to what I do now. LOL!  I can’t even imagine what I’ll say about my current work a few years from now.

© Michael James

What was the first camera you ever owned and how did you come across it?  Was it a hand-me-down, purchased at a garage sale, found on the side of the road?

I don’t even recall (pathetic I know).  Initially I bought some kind of $400-$500 digital camera (sony possibly?). However, the first camera I researched and bought when I decided to get serious about real estate photography was a Canon 20D with a Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM.  Since then I’ve owned and used multiple brands.

What was your first paid photography job?  Did you enjoy it?  Were you scared?  Did you make any mistakes?

I was asked to shoot another real estate investor’s property. He saw how quickly I was reselling and renting my inventory and he wasn’t happy with his current photographer’s results. Thankfully I had made most of the really big mistakes on my own properties so I was fine when I shot for his and word began to spread to other real estate investors that I would shoot for others.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

I accidentally left my Canon 5D on a custom white balance setting from the night prior when I was shooting an interior at night. I had set it to custom white balance some extremely yellow/orange low powered tungsten in a bedroom. I’d bet it was 2200-2300 Kelvin.

The following morning I showed up sleepy to a shoot to take some shots from the beach of a beach front condo. The morning light to my back was so intense I couldn’t even see the LCD clearly.  I squinted intensely and saw the histogram clearly enough to determine it would be sufficient and more importantly, that I did NOT blow out hightlights.  By the time I made it back up to the property and hauled my gear into the condo, cloud cover rolled in.  So when I set up for my first interior shot I reviewed the LCD and noticed a nasty blue shift on those images I took outside and then noticed the 5D was still set to CWB. I shot RAW and figured I’d fix it in LightRoom (white balance).  Besides, it was too late to go reshoot now that it was cloudy. Ironically, I thought it didn’t matter anyway.  Why?

I was told that RAW is RAW and figured I could just choose daylight white balance in post.  Boy did I learn a lesson the hard way.  You can’t if your custom white balance settings were set to an extreme setting that causes the camera to boost color channels on capture.  What a nasty surprise.

The custom setting in order to color balance to that 2200-2300 Kelvin tungsten the night prior was causing the camera to boost the blue channel to such an extreme that when when I took the shots that morning on the beach the blue channel data was being ramped up tremendously. So much so that when I took it into either Canon’s RAW converter or LightRoom 1.0 choosing either auto or daylight resulted in a completely trashed color spectrum.  I’m not talking a little here. It was totally screwed.  I attempted to isolate the blue channel in Photoshop using curves/levels, but the colors NEVER came out quite right.  The images were useless for commercial work.

I had always been told shooting raw you can tweak white balance in post.  That it didn’t matter.  But what I found out after this was if you custom balance for one of the extremes and then shoot in lighting conditions at the other end of the spectrum, the ramping that takes place in that channel on the sensor is not something that can be fixed in post because it is boosting the channel on capture. So even shooting RAW won’t save you. I had some photographers tell me I was wrong, but after trying this out on their own, they came to the same conclusion.  That ramping up in the blue channel caused issues with hue and saturation that were not repairable in photoshop.

I ended up having to travel back on a sunny day (an hour away) to reshoot those beach shots that I lost.  Also, the listing agent was fumed that I didn’t have the shots in the time frame I told her I would have them done so I had to comp the shoot to keep her as a client. Lesson learned.  Painful.

How did you decide to make photography more than a hobby?  If photography is your full time job, how did you make that decision?  What was your backup plan if the photography career didn’t take off?  Any regrets?  If you are not a full time photographer, what is stopping you?  What is your full time job?  Any plans to become a full time photographer in the future?

Eventually I was shooting so often for others (referrals) I began to consider doing it full time. Plus, real estate started to get a bit frothy and I was having difficulty finding bargain priced properties to buy and then fix up.  So I stopped buying properties and then started marketing my photography in 2006.  Technically, I became a full time photographer in 2006 when I bought the Canon 20D.

What was the last straw, the final decision maker to make you go digital? What do you miss about film?

I never had to switch. I started in digital. Although I have purchased older medium format gear as well as Canon/Nikon 35mm pro film bodies and occasionally shoot film along with digital.

What is the hardest part of the job when shooting for a client? What is the hardest part of the job when shooting for yourself?

The hardest part is getting the client to properly prep a property for a shoot.  Many times the tough part of the shoot is staging the property prior to even taking a single shot.  As far as shooting for myself I rarely do these days. I’m so busy with client shoots I rarely have time to shoot for fun. Thankfully, I enjoy shooting real estate and I love getting to see beautiful homes on a weekly basis so I don’t feel an emptiness because of not shooting much personally.

 

Do you try to help others learn about photography?  If so, please explain how.

I’ve taught some realtors with hands on training (paid of course).  It won’t surprise you that they have all been top producers in real estate and already understood the power of good photography.  In the end many of them still called me to tackle that million or multi-million dollar listing they didn’t want to take a chance on shooting themselves.

Also, there are two realtors I taught that after being taught realized this is harder than it initially seemed and just opt to use me instead.  At least they understand what I do and they even use me as a closing tool when on listing appointments by giving the client my website to view the quality of my photos.  Its funny because a few times I’ve received an email from someone I don’t know telling me how excited they are I’ll be shooting their property and I have no idea who they are. Then the next day or so I’ll get a call from the realtor who got the listing asking me when I’ll be available to shoot for them.

What and/or who inspires you in life and photography and why?

I’m inspired by work that is done in visual effects (VFX). Avatar, etc. No one person in particular, there are many visual artists I respect and admire.  That kind of work is what dazzles me and inspires me to go out and shoot and then edit those high contrast scenes in post.  I’m not doing visual effects these days, it just inspires me when I see them done well whether it is a commercial or in a movie.

© Michael James

Do you consider yourself an artist first before thinking about the job ahead of you?

No. I try to get creative about angles or lighting on a shoot and do my best in post, but I really can’t say I view myself as an artist. I feel more like an engineer who solves complicated exposure problems.

What is the best advice you would give a photographer just starting out?

I’ll tell you what I view as critical for any freelancer (photography, whatever).  You have to be able to sell yourself and your service. Period. People buy confidence. I’ve seen better photographers than I come and go (as in couldn’t survive and folded) in this market simply because they aren’t good communicators and can’t sell. Ditto when I was in advertising. Sure photography is a commodity, but it is often the client’s image, brand and reputation you are co-creating with them.  They need and want to hear that you are aligned with their vision and/or needs for that shoot/project.

Simply putting up a shingle either online or in commercial space won’t solely lead to success (even if you are talented) if you can’t close. You need to find out what a client’s challenge/problem is and show them how you are going to fix it for them. Closers get contracts signed.  And closing isn’t about being bossy or a bully. It is about convincing.

Creative people HATE it when they hear this kind of talk about selling, which is why I rarely ever say it (online or off). It evokes anger in those who want to believe their work speaks for themselves and should trump someone with lessor skills.  The cold hard truth is that in many, many instances it is the best marketer / seller / closer that wins bids. How do I know this? Because I’m “that guy”, you know, the one who is almost as good as you, but knows how to cultivate client relationships, bring ideas and insight to the table, did my research before meeting them and already had anticipated questions, concerns and needs.

I’ve won bids over more talented folks because I have spent my life in sales and marketing and many years ago learned to connect with people quickly and cultivate relationships. And believe me, I have heard the word “NO”… thousands of times in my life. The key is I heard “NO” more than many.  Enough to “try, fail, and adjust” ad nauseam.

If you hate sales, you had better be really, really, REALLY good with a camera and photoshop.  Just look around town.  The barrier to entry into photography is virtually nothing these days with a website, business cards and a canon rebel in hand. Trust me, most of my clients don’t know the difference between a 1Ds Mark III and a Rebel XT. They are both black, they both have a lens sticking out in front of it. You can’t fit it in your shirt pocket so you are a pro to them.

The key to creativity is…

For me it is to look within for solutions and ideas.  I have almost never looked at other photographers work, only this last year have I peaked.  I’ve always forged my own path right or wrong.  So walking on the edge, pushing the envelope internally has been where I find my own creativity.  BTW, I do consider creativity quite different than inspiration.  I’ve been inspired by the beauty of an animation, movie, video or image.  That will sometimes give  me the energy to go inside to get creative about something I want to work on, problem/solution.

What is your favorite camera that you have used or owned?  What camera and lens combination do you use most of the time when photographing for a client?  What about when photographing for yourself?

The Sigma SD14.  The foveon sensor captures Red, Green and Blue on every pixel unlike virtually all other cameras which capture one color on each pixel and then basically do complicated math and blurring to get to a full color image. As a result the SD14 creates both an amazingly sharp image on capture and has amazing dynamic range on the sensor.  One of the key reasons I love it so much is the software it comes with has a slider to adjust the raw images that acts almost like a tonemapping application.  The amount of fill and highlight recovery it gives you is remarkable.  The downside is the software runs slow on both the mac and windows machines (UGH!!). However, I am constantly blown away by the dynamic range of that sensor.

I shoot with the SD14 personally and professionally.  When I head out the door to shoot for fun though, I don’t grab the 5D mark II or the D3, instead I grab the SD14.  However…. (you knew this was coming)…

The SD14 has one huge flaw.  It is terrible in low light. When I say terrible, I mean disgusting noise clumping. Chunks of noise with nasty magenta tinting. Noise Ninja, etc won’t help.  Also, the SD14 loves daylight and performs wonderfully in it, but performs equally poorly in tungsten light.  Very sketchy in mixed lighting as well.  To top it off, there is often a slight green hue to images that I find very simple to fix in post by adding a small amount of magenta, but those who shoot JPEG and not RAW hate this issue.

The Sigma SD14 is very popular amongst amateur landscape photographers because it does so well in natural light and has a large dynamic range. There are professionals using it for weddings, etc, but nothing compared to the likes of Canon/Nikon.

All that said, Sigma at Photokina 2008 announced they will release the SD15 in late 2009 or early 2010. Obviously 2009 has passed with no announcement, but the SD15 promises to fix many of the issues the SD14 fell short on.  The SD15 is definitely a camera I will be getting when released.

For client work I for the past two years have mainly shot with a Nikon D3 + 14-24mm f/2.8G combo.  I also have a handful of Nikkor primes I use with the D3. 90% of my real estate photography shoots are with Nikon and 10% with the Sigma SD14 for balcony and outdoor shots.  I recently bought a Canon 5D mark II in order to get the Canon 17mm f/4 Tilt Shift lens which Nikon currently does not have in focal length.

What is your favorite time of day to shoot outdoors?

Sunrise or sunset, but my favorite is sunset because I am most alert in the afternoons and evening.  Mornings suck.

How do you deal with rejection of your work, losing a job, not making a sale or a negative comment?

Like I said earlier, I’ve heard “NO” more than most, so I don’t mind losing a bid or a job. I price  work and then don’t budge. I am priced fairly and you can’t have me for WalMart pricing. I’ll move back into sales or something else before I start discounting my rates.

Negative comments are different though. I’ve only had a couple clients make them, but the exposure issues were so difficult to overcome on the shots they commented on that I knew there was potential for them to bring it up.  It sucks, life goes on.  HOWEVER! When I post images online and comments are made with no solution and obviously no genuine constructive criticism, that doesn’t sit well.  It speaks more to the type of person that made the comment than my work, but annoying to me that someone wastes so much time and energy to tear someone else down.

© Michael James

Do you prefer RAW or JPG and why?  If RAW, would you prefer a system that uses the DNG RAW format?

I shoot RAW and I would like to see the industry move to DNG capture in camera, but doubt Canon/Nikon will do it.  For example, with Nikon’s software you can edit their raw format and then save it with the changes.  Their .NEF file and your edits in Capture NX are kept in the file and if you save it and give that .NEF to another person with Capture NX software, those tweaks are there.  I doubt Nikon has plans to go to DNG while they sell software supporting that feature and there are other companies with their own proprietary file formats as well.

I applaud Adobe for DNG, but I think Microsoft’s JPEG XR format that got approved in 2009 as an international standard is more likely to be adopted by camera makers. It has amazing lossless features for in camera and post processing uses as well as a high dynamic range ability. It really is an amazing spec.

How do you protect your camera when not in use?  When traveling?  When on the way to a job? What if it rains?  Any specific brands you love more than others?

I shoot almost exclusively in sunny or partly sunny conditions so I don’t have rain gear.  Just bags for travel.  Also, I have not had the need to fly to a shoot yet so I don’t have proper, hard core, hardened travel gear/cases.  Therefore no brand favs.

Do you clean the CCD yourself or send it away somewhere?  If you send it away, where to and how much does it cost?

I use Dust-Aid and clean it myself.  I hate touching the sensor, but a necessary evil when huge dust bunnies appear.

What music sparks your creativity?  Do you listen to that when shooting a job?  Do you listen to music at all?  Do you listen to what the client likes?

I don’t listen to music when shooting.  I’d like to, but there are too many reasons to list to why it is not an option.  Editing is another story completely.  I almost can’t edit without something playing.  My music likes are bizarrely huge and I won’t bore you with a list of names of bands because when I edit I generally listen to mixes (dance/club type mixes) to stay into the edit and upbeat for many hours of post production per week.

What is your favorite band? Movie?  Book?  Museum? Website? Who is your favorite photographer?  Artist?

My favorite band is really an artist of sorts. She is a young, upcoming DJ out of Miami http://dj-ama.com/ .  TRON is still my favorite flick, though Avatar blew me away as it comes to effects work. Favorite book is “Influence” which should be required reading for anyone in sales. Twitter is my online crack, but no favorite museum/photographer/artist to single out.

© Michael James

What is your favorite photograph you’ve ever taken?

A living room shot I took in 2007 “Avalon Living Room”. I just knew then I was going to love that shot as I was setting it up. That home was so gorgeous I didn’t want to leave.

What is your favorite photograph from another photographer?

I couldn’t say, I rarely look at others work.  Seriously. I don’t want to copy or emulate anyone so I have avoided looking at other’s work.  However, in 2009 I began to peak at photographer portfolios as twitter followers would follow me.

Is there something you always ask yourself or think just before you push the shutter button?

 

Just a check list typical of real estate shoots.  Looking for clutter, something out of place.

If you could take your art in any direction without fear of failure or rejection, where would it lead? What new thing would you try?

I was doing some experimental in late 2008 early 2009.  I was shooting rapid bracketed sequences with a fluid head video tripod using a D3. Basically each frame is a merged bracket (.hdr) which I then turned into a video sequence. The result is a video clip of a room with an enormous exposure range tonemapped to allow full exposure inside and through windows. A “pseudo-HDR video of sorts”.  It is similar to time lapse workflow, but I’m taking an entire pan or tilt in under a minute using the D3’s high FPS.  I’ll be doing more work like this in 2010 as well as getting what I shot in 2009 uploaded to Vimeo at some point.

Do you find yourself always looking at the World wondering how it would look as a photograph?

Photography has turned me into a light addict. I can’t help, but look at a scene and wonder how I would shoot it to tame the exposure, color balance, etc. I can’t turn it off.

If you could only shoot one thing over and over, what would it be?

Beach front properties. I never get tired of shooting gorgeous homes overlooking stunning beaches. I am lucky in that I live in a vacation destination and get to shoot many of the beautiful beach front homes and condos here.

When you meet someone for the first time and they find out that you’re a photographer what kind of questions do you get from them relating to photography?  What is the strangest question you’ve been asked from someone you just meet for the first time?

Many people react positively or interested in what kind of photography. Some photography enthusiasts start drooling and telling me how much they wish they could shoot full time.  A mixed bag of reactions, but mostly quite positive.  Strangest question was someone that wanted to know if I shoot nudes. I say strange because I was getting the feeling he was inquiring for himself to be shot! I didn’t let the conversation last long enough to find out though.

© Michael James

Do you prefer big lighting, a strobist style lighting or mostly natural light?

Nearly everything I shoot is natural light with most shots bracketed, merged to HDR and then tonemapped in post.  I will on occasion use flash when a scene is so back lit that HDR is not the best option and it would be best to use flash to compensate for the exposure extremes.  For portraits I have several canon speedlites and canon wireless transmitter unit.

What was the most challenging photography job you ever had?

A 2007 beach wedding in high humidity and gail force winds.  Sand was blasting my poor 5D and 24-70mm f/2.8L.  Sand was sticking to everything (the poor bride as well). Shortly after that I decided I’d stick to real estate photography and portraits.

What do you do to challenge yourself?

Every shoot is a challenge for me. It is why I still find photography interesting. Shooting architectural interiors without flash and getting good results is the toughest photography I’ve come up against thusfar.  I’d use flash if I had the time to setup devices in rooms, but often I’m shooting directly at glass to catch the ocean view (beach front homes remember) and the reflections of those windows, mirrors, etc., make it very difficult to work with flash.  That and I’m often limited in the amount of time I have to shoot a property.  For some rental properties I have 40-50 minutes to stage, frame and nail roughly 15-20 shots of that property between the cleaning crew departing and guest arrival/check-in.  Good luck doing that with speedlites.

How do you think DSLR Video will effect the Wedding Market?

Not my market, but clearly client expectations will shape this market in that direction. I pity the wedding photogs because I can see clients either expecting some video shot along with photos for the same price or other photogs offering it in their photography service for the same price thereby forcing others to join in.  I really hope it doesn’t futher accelerate the race to the bottom of a price chart because video is hard work. A lot of photogs are getting all excited about video and the “new” fusion market or overcranking for slow mo (both of which have been around for a decade) not realizing that video editing is both storage and time consuming. Audio?  Oh yeah… welcome to production 101.  Video is not hard, just time consuming.

Any projects you are working on currently?  Anything planned for the future?

I have a few HDR timelapses I’d like to plan for 2010. Just need to find the time.

For someone really considering a major life change is it worth it to quit an office job with a fixed salary for freelance photography?  Any advice on getting started?

I touched on this earlier.  I’m a seat of my pants, risk taking kind of guy so I’m the WRONG guy to ask about if you should quit your job, enjoy base jumping, or try sky diving.  All equally exciting. The question is what is your plan once you are off the payroll / bridge / plane.

Anything you would like to add for our readers?

Just that even though being a full time photographer can be fun, it is not all fun and games.  It is still a business and you need to treat it like one as you would any coffee shop or commercial store front.  Sometimes long hours and/or no vacations is what it takes to get through the feast / famine cycle that I’ve seen come and go every year.

View more photographs by Michael James: digitalcoastimage.comtwitter.com/HDRphotography

Thank you for reading the interview. This interview was presented to the photographer with questions asked by me and submissions from other photographers. The photographer is asked to answer only what he/she is comfortable with. If you would like to contribute to future interviews, please submit your your questions to me on Twitter, Facebook or on the Interview intro blog post, What would you ask a photographer?. Thank you for reading and enjoy the interview.

Some questions supplied from the following Twitter users:
@pjtaylorphoto, @donkeymaster, @GrfxGuru, @thomasflight, @paulwestlake

Some questions supplied from the following Facebook users:
Brian Walter, Faylin Myhre, Leslie DeLorean, Patrick Connor

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