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Reality TV and the lessons it has for selling art

August 13th, 2013

Reality TV and the lessons it has for selling art

Anyone that has turned on the telly in the last few years knows that the channels are inundated with reality TV shows. Most probably realize that these shows are not in fact reality for the vast majority of people. The shows that do well are relatable but go beyond our personal realities and that is what seems to make them popular.

The Real Housewives series has very little to do with 99.9% of real housewives yet my wife is drawn to the show like a moth to a flame. Duck Dynasty is one of the highest rated shows because we can relate to the characters but it is certainly not reality for most country boys. Honey Boo Boo? Well, I have no idea but it is certainly not reality for most of us.

What these shows do is provide entertainment that is relatable but beyond our personal reality. Reality doesn't sell that well in Hollywood. Most people have more than enough reality sitting right there in their living room and in their weekly routines; they watch TV or go to the movies to escape and go beyond reality.

I think the same concept applies to art as well. People want things beyond their personal reality. While they need to relate to the art, it needs to be something they don't see every day and certainly something they don't think they can create themselves. That doesn't mean the work has to be fantasy but it does need to go beyond normal. Anyone with a cat can take a shot on their cell phone of their pet; what are you offering in your cat image that they cannot do themselves or that they do not see every day?

I will use my own work for some examples of how I go beyond reality but how you do it is really up to you. If you are a painter, hey, most of your work is something the average buyer cannot do but for us togs, how do we create a new reality for our viewers.

The way I do it most often is simply presenting a familiar scene in an unfamiliar way. For me this usually involves weather or lighting.

These two images of DC both show very common everyday sites for anyone that lives in or visits DC. But both go beyond the reality of how the scenes appear if you have been there yourself. I have been to the Tidal Basin hundreds of times but this is the only time I have ever seen light and clouds like this. Capturing the Capitol with the exact lighting I wanted took a lot of trips at 0400 but it creates a scene most people do not get to see.
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These scenes are within a stones throw of Annapolis Maryland. Sandy Point is visited by thousands of visitors on any given sunny summer day but the scene below is not one many people that are familiar with the area ever witness. The boat is an abandoned rowboat at a popular boat ramp but add the ice and the clouds and the lighting and the scene become surreal.
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Tens of thousands of people visit North Carolina beaches every week if not every day. How many of them actually see scenes like the ones below. The seagull was originally a flock of seagulls sleeping along the shore in the dark. All flew away except the one. It was more than an hour before sunrise and the light on the horizon was really just a glow. This scene is not reality and not even how it appeared to my eyes when I shot it but it sells well. The pier is exactly how it appeared at sunrise but even then, very few people get up to watch a sunrise and at sunset, the scene would be covered with people and besides, the set happens away from the ocean. Again, not reality to most.
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Finally I give you the tree. Hey, single trees are easy to find but capturing one in the lighting below? It is not reality for most people and for me, it was reality for a brief moment in time, then gone.
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Now, how you go beyond reality is really up to you. Some do it with amaing textures and layers turning the everyday into the surreal. Some travel and shoot things most people never get to see. There are infinitely many ways to do it, you have to find yours.

On the Way to the Office

March 2nd, 2012

On the Way to the Office

Last summer I was walking along the River Walk in beautiful downtown Wilmington North Carolina. Looking across the Cape Fear River I saw the wreckage of an old wooden tugboat. Right then and there I knew I had to have a close up shot of that boat.

While I would love to have shot it that that very day there was a problem. The tugboat sits on the edge of the Cape Fear River in the middle of a large river swamp. Being a good southern boy and avid outdoorsman I know that these southern river swamps are just filled with big nasties….. I am talking about alligators big enough to scare the shark from Jaws. I am talking about cottonmouth snakes that could eat a pit bull. There are mosquitos and biting flies that can carry off small children if you aren’t watching them closely. For all I know a family of sasquatches and that polar bear looking thing from Lost also live in this swamp. So, I marked the spot in my mind under the “Must shoot later” file.

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Fast forward to this January and I open that file. Winter is a relatively safe time to explore swamps. Well, the temperature range between 35 and 45 is…… If it gets much colder than 30 then you risk hypothermia because I promise you are going to be wet. If it starts to get above 50 and is sunny then some of those big nasties might just come up out of their hole and do some sun bathing. But the temperature this morning is a perfect 39 degrees……

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I spent some time trying to find an easy trail to the boat but had no luck so I went with my “can’t miss” route to get to the boat. That plan was to simply follow the edge of the Cape Fear River until I was next to the shipwreck. For this trip I was dressed in multiple layers, had my camera gear in my backpack and had my trusty oak walking/fighting/snake stick. Oh, since I want to be in place an hour before sunrise, I am starting this “hike” two hours before sunrise which was 5:00 AM or so.

The “hike” started about as expected. There was a mix of mud and sand and rocks and everything else you might expect along a southern river. The further I got the more unusual the terrain became. There are actually 35 abandoned ships along the edge of the river here. It takes a while to make your way around what used to be docks and wharfs and to navigate around the hulls all now mostly buried in the muck. At one point I wandered across a large marine diesel engine. It was the only part of a vessel that had weathered the decades of storms and the wrath of nature.

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An hour into this trek I was getting close. I could feel it. That is when I came to the river of mud separating me from my objective. I sunk to well above my knee when I tested its depth. It would be physically impossible to walk across without getting stuck. At this point I was faced with somewhat of a conundrum. I could give up and turn around. I could follow this “river” upstream to see if there was a crossing but that would add at least an hour. Or there was the option I chose; you can indeed cross mud flats like this but you have to spread your weight out so that you remain on the surface. That means the military low crawl. I am not talking hands and knees here because that won’t work. I am talking about literally crawling on your belly and moving like a snake across the mud. It works!

I am finally across the mud flats and there she is; the Isco. There is enough solid land around the old girl that I can now move relatively well. I still have to be careful or I will find myself and my Canon in the salty mud and muck but it is far easier than the hour plus I have spent getting to this spot.

Below are a few of the results of this “mission.”

Oh, BTW, when you start at the shoreline and it is daylight it is really not that hard to find a slightly easier and dryer way to egress the target back to the original ingress point.


*You can read more about the history of the Isca here:

Planning for that once in a lifetime shot again and again

June 15th, 2011

Planning for that once in a lifetime shot again and again

As the term once in a lifetime implies almost anyone can get a once in a lifetime shot once. The question is how to get one again and again and again.

There is a lot more to producing a stunning landscape image than having your camera and being in the right place at the right time then pressing a button. That said being in the right place at the right time is a critical aspect of the big picture. (Big picture, get it?) The question is how to be in the right place at the right time?

I suppose you could bring your camera with you everywhere you go and when you observe a scene develop just stop what you are doing and shoot away. To an extent I do just that but the reality is that bringing a large expensive camera body, a couple lenses and a tripod with you everywhere is just not practical. Every so often I have my equipment with me and stumble upon the perfect lighting along with a perfect subject to shoot. The blind squirrel analogy comes to mind here. I was driving down an urban parkway in the rain when the clouds broke open and Mother Nature blessed me with an hour and a half of some of the most amazing lighting I have ever seen and I had a decent camera with me and the time to use it. This image is one of hundreds I shot in that 90 minutes. Sometimes it works out that way but the reality is bringing your kit with you when you are out running errands is just not always practical and leaving thousands of dollars worth of equipment in your car all the time is almost asking for it to be stolen.
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If we can’t reliably count on stumbling upon these scenes that means we have to do some planning. Broadly speaking there are two types of plans I make. There are places and scenes I am familiar with and then there are places I have never been before. In today’s post we will explore the planning involved to get “The Shot” in an area you are familiar with.

Planning for places you are familiar with is easier for obvious reasons. When I go out for a shoot I am either looking for something that will compliment a perfect sky or a sky that will highlight a specific subject. I live in Northern Virginia and work in DC. There are scores of monuments and historical sites to shoot which is good but it is hard to get a shot that is unique and hasn’t been seen before. If you are shooting strictly for yourself then shooting something the same way it has been shot thousands of times before is fine. If you are interested in possibly selling your work then you need to offer a unique and striking presentation that the buyer can’t find by walking into any mall or gift shop in the local area. For instance I wanted an image of the US Capitol Building. If you run a Google search for a US Capitol Building image you get about 820,000 results. How do you come up with something unique? Getting a shot with something other than blue skies and puffy clouds for a background is one way and that is where the planning comes in. Because I live in the area I can scout where the more dramatic shots can be taken. I have the knowledge of where the sunrise will happen in relation to the prospective shooting sites. I know where I can park at different times and on different days. I know how long it will take me to get to my “spot” after I park. I know that during the summer sunrise happens as early as 5:40 AM and in the winter it is sometimes after 8:00. Because I work in a secure location with secure parking I am comfortable leaving my gear in my car when I am at work. Knowing all that I formulate a plan. Nine months out of the year sunrise happens during the heart of the rush hour. That means that driving through downtown on my way to work will add an hour to my commute and even if I see a dramatic sky developing I won’t be able to find parking anywhere near the Capitol. Around the summer solstice sunrise happens while most people are still asleep or just getting up here. Since I have some control over the time I arrive at work I leave my house an hour before sunrise during the early summer. At that time of the morning traffic is light and I can be in downtown DC in 15 minutes. As I approach downtown I look at the sky and make a guestimation as to whether it will be a dramatic sunrise or not. If it is overcast or clear skies I just keep driving to work. If however there are scattered clouds I exit and head towards the Capitol. It is easy to find parking in downtown DC at 5:00 AM. (That is about the only time its easy.) I park my truck and hike on over to one of my pre-picked spots depending on where the clouds are in relation to the sunrise and the Dome. Then 9/10 times it is less than spectacular and I walk back to my truck and drive to work. Because I am local I just keep doing this until “it” happens. Oh you will know when “it” happens. The lighting is perfect. The sky is perfect. You are in position and you are ready and it all comes together. That is what makes the 30 times I got up at o-dark thirty and just kept driving and the 9 times I stopped for nothing worth it all.
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I also have a plan in place just in case I sense a dramatic sunset or storm coming on but have nothing in particular to shoot. In my opinion what you really need to shoot a dramatic sky is an unobstructed view towards the horizon. Large fields, high rooftops and relatively large bodies of water come to mind but really anywhere with an unobstructed view will work. If you happen to live five minutes from a beach with an impressive lighthouse your options are many. But if you are like me and live inland it will take a little preplanning to be ready when it happens. Within five miles of my house I found a Pohick Bay. It isn’t a tourist destination and isn’t developed. What it offers is scenic nature shots and about 220 degrees of water views. There are approximately five miles of water views from a 110 degree azimuth to around a 330 degree azimuth. Since the sky’s drama is not always over the point of the actual sunset this pre-planned area gives me access to long views in myriad directions to capture whatever drama the sky can present. In this image I saw the drama in the sky developing about dinner time and got that look in my eye. My wife has long since accepted that I miss my share fair of dinners so off I went to Pohick. To get this shot I waded chest high into the bay so that I could get the autumn foliage as well as the sunset and reflections but that is more of a composition discussion. While you may not live near Pohick Bay I am willing to bet that 90% of you have someplace nearby that you can shoot the drama in the sky when you see it developing if you have planned for it in advance.
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In my next post I will discuss the planning I do for a site I have never been to nor seen before. While being in the right place at the right is an important part of getting that shot of a lifetime there is a lot more planning than luck involved if you plan to do it more than once.