Images from an assignment for Outside Online about a 35 mile alpine mountaineering traverse in the North Cascades known as the Ptarmigan Traverse. The route travels over some of the most rugged terrain in the Cascades, including six glaciers and crosses over the crest of the North Cascades 10 times.
Wigwam has become a regular client (4 contract shoots in the past year). And I'm a happy photographer when the client's feedback from a shoot is "Bravo Stephen. It's going to be hard to limit to 10. We may have to buy more. Yikes! Frickin' outstanding."
Confession: I'm a reluctant self-promoter and social media photographer. Those are not good personal traits to have as a photographer, I know. I do these things with just a little more enthusiasm than kicking and screaming, largely because I have an aversion to self-promotion. I've been in the photo business long enough (almost 20 years!) that when I began social media didn't exist, and good work would speak for itself and rise to the top. Not so much anymore.
Which is not to say that good work doesn't stand out. It does...sometimes. But not enough to just sit back and wait for the phone to ring and watch the checks roll in. Photographers now need to be constantly putting their work out there and promoting themselves to potential clients. There are so many photographers now that even the best work can get lost in the noise. That was true even before social media. Add Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Snapchat and it's enough noise to give any photo buyer or creative director a headache. And for photographers, especially reluctant self-promoters, it's challenging to stay on top of it all.
But social media is an opportunity I can't ignore, so I dutifully post my work. I focus my energy mainly on Instagram and Facebook. With it's clean photo-centric design, Instagram is the best platform for sharing photos. I was slow to get on board with both Facebook and Instagram, so I was behind the ball. Had I jumped in sooner, I would have a bigger social media presence. I've been playing catch up. As I write this post I currently have 41k Instagram followers and 1k Facebook followers. It's pretty obvious how much easier it is to connect with followers on Instagram. A few years ago, Facebook changed it's sharing algorithm which made it harder to build a following and get attention, at least without paying for advertising. Instagram has also made changes from it's original algorithm that also makes it harder to build a following, but it's still much easier than Facebook.
As an established commercial photographer, I think social media has limited use for me. But as an editorial and landscape photographer, having a social media presence has helped me bring in work and sell prints. But Instagram has changed the business model for photographers entering the business. If you build a big enough following (greater than 100k), you'll likely be lucky enough to get paid to drop some company's name in your post. That's a big deal for photographers who were smart enough to jump into Instagram early and get a big following, or for those who are adept enough to work the platform to still attract large numbers of new followers. And with Instagram's analytics, photographers can show potential clients how big an impression they are making to help set their rates.
Where do we go from here? From my conversations with photo editors, Facebook has outlived it's usefulness. The editors I've talked to are more likely to use Instagram to search for images or photographers. That's all I needed to hear to change my focus to Instagram. But Instagram has a fraction of the active users of Facebook. This can be looked at in a couple of ways. First, it's still growing and has a lot of room to continue to grow. That means potential for more followers. Second, it's a more targeted audience. While Facebook is about sharing photos, it's just as much about sharing stories, or having discussions, or messaging. Instagram is all about the photos. And that's where I want to be focusing my energy...on a growing platform that's the go-to for photo editors and that's designed to be all about the photos.
I've worked with Wigwam socks on a few shoots this year, including a couple of winter outdoor lifestyle shoots and family hiking shoot. The shooting involved a number of different locations both indoor and outdoor, using some strobes to augment the natural light. Here are are a few of my favorite images from these shoots.
About a year and a half ago I wrote a blog post predicting that mirrorless cameras were well on the way to making dSLRs the living dead of the camera world (original post here). It's time to take another look at what I wrote in that post and where I think the camera world is and where I am regarding the state of mirrorless. But before I dig in to nerdy gear head stuff, I should acknowledge that a camera is just a tool that enables photographers to execute their vision. Even the best camera is worthless in the hands of a photographer with no vision or creativity. Every camera I discuss below will enable a creative photographer to shoot incredible photos.
When I wrote my original post, I had just returned my Samsung NX1 because of EVF live view design issues, but still believed that mirrorless cameras would overcome that issue and begin to dominate the camera market. Has that panned out? Let's take a look, shall we?
First, here's where I am with my camera lineup. I still have all of my canon camera and lens gear (Canon 5d mark iii and 7d mark ii). But I've since added a Sony a7rii and am impatiently waiting to receive a Sony a6300, both mirrorless cameras that I can use my Canon lenses with a Metabones adapter (with pretty good autofocus!). That is a game changer. Being able to use my Canon lenses on the Sony mirrorless cameras allows me to slowly transition from canon to Sony instead of making a big leap into the relatively unknown with a new camera system. It's not perfect but so far i really love the Sony a7rii. At 42mp the image quality is astounding. I'm seeing details in my images that I've never seen before even with my 5d mark iii. While the focus tracking with my adapted Canon lenses is not nearly as good as using them on the Canon cameras, it is acceptable for about 80% of what I shoot being almost better than the Canons with single shot autofocus. I'll even shoot some fairly fast sports like the running shot above with the a7rii. On a side note, continuous autofocus on the a7rii with the adapted Canon lenses is abysmal, which is the 20% I am unable to use it for. But I was aware of that shortcoming before I purchased the a7rii. I'm stoked to try out the a6300 for a number of reasons, but mainly because it is the first mirrorless camera that has a true live view during burst shooting. In other words, unlike all other mirrorless cameras so far, the a6300 will show the live view through the viewfinder in between shots, instead of a series of images that were just shot. This is another game changer for mirrorless and another bad omen for dSLRs. For most photographers, this is unimportant. For sports photographers, this is essential.
So what about the current state of mirrorless among camera manufacturers? I'm glad you asked. Sony has been leading the charge on mirrorless and is really dominating the market (among pros and serious amateurs) with mirrorless. With a combination of sensor design, high quality EVFs, features and reasonable cost (compared to the big two, Nikon and Canon), they are crushing it. Sadly Samsung dropped out of the high end market entirely and stopped making the NX1. Panasonic has a workhorse with the existing GH4 and likely to soon be announced GH5. Olympus is making some nice cameras but I don't see other pros really shooting with them. The big two have done almost nothing with mirrorless. They are both simply ignoring the mirrorless market, which confounds many of my professional photographer peers. From my perspective, it almost seems as though Canon and Nikon are ideologically against mirrorless. Instead they keep updating their dSLR lineups with impressive cameras like the Canon 1Dx mark II, Nikon D5 and D500, and the rumored Canon 5D mark iv. All of these cameras are great cameras and have impressive features that I look for in a camera but...
...but they are still SLRs. They are (now) unnecessarily big and heavy and lack an electronic viewfinder. And as I get older, heavy is bad. Heck even when I was young and stupid, I knew heavy was bad. But are there advantages to dSLRs that I'm not talking about? Sure but they are falling by the way side with each generation of mirrorless cameras. First was autofocus. The big two argued that you'd never get good autofocus with mirrorless. Well that's not true anymore. In fact I find my a7rii with my adapted Canon lenses can single shot focus better than my Canon lenses on the Canon bodies. How is this possible? With an SLR, the autofocus module is not on the sensor but a separate module within the mirror box. This creates room for error because it is approximating where the focus should be. And most of the time this works very well. But lenses can get out of alignment of where they are supposed to be so this error can change over time. I have a Canon 70-200 2.8L lens that is very sharp when focused accurately, but even with autofocus micro-adjustment, I can't get either of my Canon cameras to focus it well. But on my a7rii, it's spot on almost every time. Mirrorless cameras focus right on the sensor, so there is no built in focus measurement error.
Okay so what about the advantages of an optical viewfinder? Sharper and more responsive than an electronic viewfinder, right? Nope, not anymore. The EVFs on the a7rii and a6300 are outstanding. And the a6300 viewfinder has a refresh rate of 120fps. That's really fast! I didn't need any time to adjust to the EVF on the a7rii because it feels so much like an optical viewfinder. How about ergonomics? Who wants a tiny camera body with all those tiny buttons? That's a reasonable question but after using my a7rii and getting used to it, I find the SLRs unnecessarily big. In fact they feel huge and the buttons all seem far apart. The smaller a7rii now feels more natural in my hand. The a7rii does need a lot of improvement in layout of controls and functioning, but that's not necessarily a function of size but more about poor design.
So the justifications for an SLR keep falling away, and there are too many other advantages and features on a mirrorless to go into here. But after a year and a half, I am even more sure that mirrorless is the (very near) future of cameras for serious photographers. No doubt dSLRs will always be around, but they will become a niche product.
On a side note, one of the criticisms of Sony has been the lack of professional grade lenses. I'd agree with that criticism but it is beginning to change. A few months ago they announced the G Master series of lenses that is just about as good as anything from the big two. This is a good start and it will take years for Sony to flesh out its array of lenses. But with the 24-70 2.8 and 70-200 2.8 lenses, they have taken two very big steps to be taken seriously by pros. I have yet to try these lenses and can't wait to shoot with both of them.
I've had a super busy start to 2016. I recently did a fantastic two day shoot for Boston based Topo Athletic. Day one was an urban running and fitness shoot in Seattle, including road and track with a mix of natural light and strobes. Day two was a rural running and lifestyle shoot in the Columbia River Gorge between Oregon and Washington, including capturing drone stills and video. With these two completely different days of shooting, I was able to leverage the diversity of the Northwest as well as my knowledge of this area to capture a wide range of locations and images in only two days of shooting.
This is my third shoot in the past year with Topo Athletic and it was great to work with them again as they are becoming a regular client.
I often get asked by potential clients what I like to do in my spare time. Usually my response is something like this: "I'm a professional photographer, so I don't have spare time!" But the real answer is this. I like to take photos in my spare time. I am a photographer because taking photos is who I am, so when I don't take photos for my clients, I take photos for myself. It can be anything. My kids; landscape photos; or lately I've been working on a personal project to document the recovery from the wildfires in the Methow Valley in Washington state (my home state).
Over the past two summers, the Methow has endured devastating fires. Each year experienced the largest wildfire in state history. That's two years in a row of record breaking wildfires. Not a good sign for future wildfire seasons as climate change really kicks in. Let's hope we can turn that around before it gets too destructive.
The Methow Valley is a special place in so many ways. But I have a strong personal connection to the valley. I fell in love with the Methow the first time I saw it, and I've been traveling there for about 20 years to ski, bike, hike, run, and take photos. My wife was on a similar path before we met, and we ended up getting married in the valley about 10 years ago. We've since bought a cabin there and spend as much time as we can in the Methow with our kids.
So it was that much harder to see the wildfires create such environmental and human devastation in the past two years. Wildfire has always been part of the natural landscape. The residents of the valley know it. They have always lived with wildfire. But fires are getting bigger and more intense and out of control in a way they haven't previously.
So I recently reached out to the Methow Conservancy, a Methow Valley based organization that helps people care for and conserve the Methow Valley. It's a great grass roots group that brings together a diverse group of people that all care about the Methow. I wanted to use my photo skills for a project to document the effects of the wildfires on the environment and community and document the recovery of the land.
We kicked off the project a couple of weeks ago. The Conservancy organized a 'seed bomb'. About 75 volunteers from the community came out to help spread seed to areas that were severely burned in the August fires near Twisp and help the land recover and minimize damage and erosion.
So this, as it turns out, is what I do in my spare time. I wish I had more spare time!
I've been a full-time professional photographer for over ten years, and semi-pro for about ten years before that. So I've been in the photo business for about twenty years. That's a long time! I started out shooting 35mm slide film, added 4x5 large format to my shooting, switched to 6x7 medium format, then gave up film entirely when Canon introduced the 5D. Now I'm still shooting Canon, but it's the 5D Mark III at 24MP. I haven't shot a frame of film for about ten years. And I'm loving being photography even more than I did when I started. Digital has added so many creative possibilities that weren't even options five or six years ago, let alone with film. Very high ISO shooting? Check! Incredibly high burst rates of 15fps or more? Check! Resolution higher than medium format in a 35mm frame? Check! All great stuff. So what's not to love?
When I meet people and tell them I'm a professional photographer, a common reaction is that I have a dream job. And in many ways I do. I get paid to travel to some amazing places. I've been to Iceland, Alaska, Utah, California, and many other beautiful locations to shoot for my clients.
I get to make my own schedule. I'm my own boss. I decide where I want to travel when I'm shooting for myself, and expense it to my business. I sometimes get to choose locations for my photoshoots for clients. This is all great stuff! But there are downsides that you might not realize until you spend a little time thinking about what goes into running your own business. Here are a few things to consider.
Paid vacation or sick leave? Forget about it. In fact, I rarely have a true vacation where I'm not working. I often travel on my vacations to places I love (don't we all?). But if I'm going to be in an amazing destination, it makes business sense to take photos. So I'm often up early for sunrise and late for sunset. I don't get much sleep or downtime on my 'vacation'. As a small business owner, much of the business of office work falls on me. I am the IT department, the accounting department, the office manager, the creative director, the marketing department, and yes, even the photographer of my business. There are a lot of hats to wear.
Of course none of that was a surprise when I became a photographer, but nobody thinks about that when they say I have their dream job. They imagine me on location in some of the most beautiful places in the world all the time. In reality, I do travel and go to beautiful places quite a bit. But more often than not, you'll find me in the office editing photos or sending out marketing emails, or, well, you get the point.
But just as importantly, the business of photography has changed dramatically, especially in the past five years. There has been a flood of great photography entering the market as amateurs post their images on Flickr, 500px, Photoshelter, or microstock libraries like shuttertock and others. And lots of amateurs are selling their work for little or almost nothing, just for the thrill of getting published. Stock photo rates are so low, sometimes images are sold for pennies. Not surprisingly, the rates paid for photo licensing and contract shooting have dropped as well.
But most surprisingly to me, is how there has been a loss of professionalism, not from photographers, but from clients. It would seem that getting paid for images being used is a straightforward transaction. You use my image, and then pay me, right? Unfortunately not. I have one (former) client that I just fired because they refuse to pay sooner than a year and a half after they print my images. That's not a typo. 18 months. the standard used to be 30-60 days after going to print. And they refuse to budge. So I refuse to work with them anymore.
I'm not trying to burst your bubble about me and your dream job. I wouldn't be doing it if I still didn't completely love being a photographer. But just like any job, there are parts of it you just would rather not have to deal with. Photographers have to work much harder now to make a living. And the days of going out and shooting great photos and sitting back waiting for the checks to roll in are long gone (if they ever really existed!). Professional photography, it's not all sunshine and lollipops!
Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs) have been the mainstay of professional photographers and enthusiasts for decades. And for good reason. The image quality and shooting capability have always been the best you can get (in a reasonable size and price anyway).
Single Lens Reflex is a nerdy way of saying what you see in the optical viewfinder is a live view through the lens. The image coming through the lens is directed up to the viewfinder via a mirror and a pentaprism (another nerdy word for more mirrors) and then through the optical viewfinder. It's great to know exactly what you are shooting. And it makes composing an image easier because you are not distracted by bright sunshine making it hard to see what's on the screen on the back of your camera, or by everything outside the frame when composing using the screen.
Okay, that makes sense, right? So we're all good? Nope, not anymore we're not. Things change, usually for the better. Disruptive technologies (see my blog post on disruptive tech below!) have a way of making the good old way not so good anymore. And the SLR is the living dead of cameras. Why? I'm glad you asked. Electronic viewfinders, that's why! An electronic viewfinder (EVF), unlike single lens reflex and pentaprism, is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of a bunch of mirrors directing the live image from the lens through the viewfinder, the camera has an electronic image come from the sensor to an electronic viewfinder. So they can look a lot like a dSLR, but smaller, and lighter, and usually faster. And photographers like faster. Who wouldn't want faster?
Why are they smaller, lighter, and FASTER!? Simply because the mirror takes up space. Get rid of the mirror and the camera can be made smaller and lighter. With an SLR, every time you take a photo, the mirror has to flip up out of the way so the light can reach the sensor. Snap! Then the mirror returns. The viewfinder goes momentarily dark. It's called viewfinder blackout. When you take a picture, you don't actually see what picture you took. You see the moment right before and the moment right after. And black in between. Since there's no mirror on a mirrorLESS (get it!) there is shorter screen blackout (or none), depending on the camera design. There are too many other advantages of mirrorless cameras to go into here, so I'll focus on smaller, lighter and faster.
The key here is the electronic viewfinder. They've been around for years. But it's just in the past year or two that they've advanced to be good enough to replace an optical viewfinder on SLRs. And that is the moment when SLRs went from dominant to zombie. It's only a matter of time before SLRs become a niche camera. Here's how I know.
I've always shot Canon SLRs. I have so much Canon gear that I (should) have a special seat at the table at their annual stockholder's meeting. So I'm kind of connected to Canon through my investment in their lenses (cameras are actually only about 1/5th of my investment in camera equipment. most of it is in lenses). I like Canon, but they're living in the past. They don't offer a good mirrorless option, instead focusing on bringing old tech to the market. Confession: I recently tried my first mirrorless camera (I feel like I'm cheating on Canon). The Samsung NX1. The NX1 is an amazing camera. It competes with Canon's new 7D Mark II. The 7D II is a nice camera, but it's already outdated. It was outdated two years before they released it. The image quality is great. But the NX1 beats the Canon at almost every spec. It's much faster frame rate, higher resolution, waaaay better video, smaller, lighter, and FASTER! And the NX1 is cheaper.
Sounds great. But I didn't keep the NX1 and reluctantly bought the 7D II instead. Why, if the NX1 is so much better? Changing cameras isn't a simple as changing the brand of your jeans. For better or worse, changing cameras also means changing lenses. And as I mentioned above, that's a big deal, and Canon knows it. But besides the big lens change, the NX1 came up short in two areas...autofocus and behavior of the viewfinder. The autofocus on the NX1 is very good, probably good enough for 90% of what I shoot and 100% of what most people shoot. But the Canon autofocus is better. The second way the NX1 came up short was how the viewfinder is programmed to function. It's a really nice electronic viewfinder. It's so good it's easy to forget it's not optical. But for some strange reason, during burst shooting, Samsung has programmed the viewfinder to show a series of still images, instead of the live image. So essentially you see a series of photos that you just took. It makes tracking a moving subject (i.e. runner, snowboarder, or misbehaving child) very difficult. I have no idea why they would do this (Samsung...not the misbehaving child), and it's something that could be easily fixed in a firmware update, which to their credit Samsung is doing about once a month. I really liked the NX1 and wanted to keep it. But I just couldn't make it work for what I needed right now.
So I'm not quite ready to switch to mirrorless...yet. But the 7D II will probably be the last SLR I ever buy, and I wouldn't be surprised if in a year I have switched to mirrorless. I get a lot of people ask me for camera recommendations and now I recommend a mirrorless. And I would recommend the NX1 without hesitation. I've also been recommending the Sony a6000. It's a smaller form factor mirrorless camera, but with amazing autofocus, resolution and frame rate.
So the SLR lives on for now. But really, it's just a zombie and will be truly dead in a year or two.
I've had my websites (www.materaphoto.com and www.stephenmatera.com) hosted through Livebooks for about five years. When I first signed on with them, they were the web host of choice for professional photographers. But a lot has changed in five years.
Since then, web design has changed both in style and functionality. Livebooks has failed to keep up with current design standards. They offer custom sites at a cost premium. But there are many other hosting and design options available. My new site (which you're reading this on) is hosted through Squarespace.
With its custom 'block design', Squarespace allows for me to build and customize my site by myself. I won't go into details about how it's done, but it's great, simple, and unmatched by other hosts I've looked into. Squarespace ranks very high in Search Engine Optimization also, which is hugely important to photographers.
But what really made me decide to leave Livebooks was all the problems I've had with them in the past couple of years. A number of times in the past year, email was down for more than a day. They have ended phone based support. Any support requests are done through an online form and a response can take over 24 hours. That's not much help in an emergency. And sad to say the support people are clueless. In trying to switch over my web host from them to Squarespace, Livebooks support incorrectly told me they had no control of my hosting, which wasn't the case. I've found the Squarespace support to be responsive, generally well informed, and helpful.
Livebooks' rates are also high compared to their competitors and design options are limited, old, or too expensive to make custom changes. The blog available through Livebooks is very limited, not allowing comments or for readers to subscribe to the blog.
Squarespace isn't perfect. I've found a bug in their design where the image captions cover part of the image when the zoom level is too magnified (they acknowledged it through support). Changing web hosts and designs is a big deal. It takes months of work to redo a site. But Livebooks...old design, expensive, and poor support. What's not to like?