The More Things Change

“We’ve got a new set guidelines we want you to follow.” The Manger says with as much enthusiasm as he can muster. “Here are the details.”

“Hmm.” I look over the list and I am already doing everything it suggests. “I am already do everything listed here.”

“Well, you could do it better.”

The world is always changing and businesses have to change with it.  McDonalds now offers ‘heathy’ alternatives, cars now offer better gas mileage, and Assembly Line Portraits now offer posing and lighting that was first popular in the 1930s.  When I first stated working in The Big Box store I had a handful of simple rules.  Take five shots of every Subject.  Change the Pose on every shot.  Change the Background three or four times.  Try to get a good expression.  If you take a Bad Shot, take another one and hope the Lab prints the right one-they often didn’t.  And then there where the usual of any job-show up and behave while at work.

The Ground Rules from the long defunct American Studios have stood me well over the last 15 years or so.  There were an endless list of other rules about Posing Sequences and False Variety and Cropping and Posing Groups and so on and so forth, but the Core Rules were still the ones that meant the difference between Base Pay and earning a bit of Commission.

If you didn’t shoot five shots, the Passer couldn’t sell their biggest package and you made less Commission.  If you didn’t Change The Pose, the Subjects wouldn’t buy two pictures that looked exactly the same, even if the background or cropping were changed-that’s False Variety.  You needed to change Two Elements in each Shot: 1) Pose, 2) Background, or 3) Cropping.  We didn’t have a lot of fancy lighting back then, so I would now add 4) Lighting.  Expressions are hard, easily the hardest part of my current job.  The Old Bastards who don’t want to be there are not going to smile, or look plesant, or even look at the Camera in some cases.  But that’s alright, you can’t win them all.

Ok, so we had basically five things we needed to do-and we had meeting every three months because we had Photographers who couldn’t be bothered to do them.  The Big Box Store was just like any other Assembly Line Portrait Studio, you get them in the door b offering them a Freebie or a Special.  110 Portraits for $4.95 Act Now!  A good number of these people soon figured out that if they didn’t want to spend any money, they could grab the kids and run after the shutter is snapped once or twice.  I had to become a bit of a Drill Sargent when it came to these people and it was not at all uncommon to yell at Mom to leave the child on the posing table as I am not done yet.  Some would listen, some would still run off.

The current Company has been wandering through a number of changes over the last few years.  Times are tough all over.  When I first started here they had a hard line on Posing-Their Way or The Highway.  They didn’t care what The Subject wanted, they didn’t care what The Photographer wanted, they knew what a good Portrait looked like and THAT is what they wanted.  They even so far as to fill the back half of our three hundred page Training Manual with samples of their ideal portraits.  They were all the same exact same poses with occasional changes in background.  Ok, this is what you want?  No problem.

Amazingly, that was what sold.  Not that they had any choice.  If you wanted to buy portraits you bought what we shot.  Not so much any more.

So the changes keep on coming.  Don’t do this, do that.  Don’t light this way, light that way.  Don’t pose like that, pose like this.  All well and good, except that we have Photographers who don’t how to do anything new and don’t want to do anything new.  Just like the Good Old Days, we have people who can’t be bothered to do the five things we should all be doing.  Posing Change, Background Change, Cropping Change, Lighting Change, and Expression Change.

The Company recently sent out an email detailing how we are to be judged on the quality of Portraits, and surprise surprise, they are basically the old standbys from every company I have ever worked for.  And as always, the trouble is not with the Rules, but in getting people to follow them.  We have the added layer of the problem of Passers being able to crop and edit the portrait in their room while they show them.  Most of these people do a good job and they sell portraits in ways that I have never been able to.  But they also tend to ruin a lot of otherwise good portraits, rendering whatever we do as Photographers irrelevant.

The bottom line is that this doesn’t matter, as long as The Subject buys the portrait.  As long as the Lab doesn’t further ruin the image to the point that someone’s head is cut off.  As long as people looking at the Portrait don’t say WTF is that? and cause The Subject to never want to buy from us again.

The New Criteria has a couple of minor additions, Centering and Composition.  Since these two were not a major part of my Glory Days training, I still have the occasional problem with them.  In the heat of the moment it is often hard to think about Centering, and on a black background it is damned hard sometimes to tell the background from the black camera body around the viewfinder.  I have been trying to pay more attention to that. As for Composition, well, that is often a matter of taste and personal preference.  I have seen a number books talk about one pose being better than another, where I couldn’t see much, if any, difference between them.  I’m sure there will examples soon enough of what Good Composition is and what Bad Composition is.   My personal rule is always, Whatever Sells is Good.

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