Interview for Russian Insider

On February 6 2015, I gave an interview to Russian Insider about my approach to photography. Here’s a copy:

Michael Levitis for Russian Insider: Dear Insiders, today I would like to introduce to the group Alexander “Sasha” Karasev, a principal photographer at Karasev Studio. Tell us a little about the work that you do, Sasha.

Me: Thank you, Michael. Hi, everyone. You can see my work at karasevstudio.com
I do three main things: advertising photography (products, office spaces), theatre photography (promotional, actor headshots), and photography consulting (help businesses deploy and use on-site photo setups and train staff, so they can do their own high quality photography).

RI: What are some of your current projects?

Me: A fun ongoing one has been InstaMedCare, an upscale medical practice where I was brought in to redesign the logo and take some exterior shots, but ended up doing large-scale shoots with 12 models as “patients” showing the staff in action; uniform design and even the design direction for the web site and marketing materials, where we’d used the actual colors and textures of the physical office in its digital and printed materials.

Secondly, stage photography for a play Kentucky Cantata. My focus was for the photos to evoke the same emotion as the scene portrayed, even captionless.

Lastly, I’m having a gallery exhibition coming up of six of my RoundNY prints. It’s a pretty small space as far as art galleries go, but everyone is welcome to come see it.RoundNY photo Guggenheim #11

RI: Any photo tips for us, to catch that perfect moment?

Me: You don’t catch it, you anticipate it. That I learned from one iconic photo, taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1932:

Behind the St. Lazare Train Station
Behind the St. Lazare Train Station

Cartier-Bresson knew that after it had rained a certain amount, a puddle would form there that was bigger than the ladder thrown on the ground, so people were going to have to jump to keep dry feet.

Much of our life operates in predictable patterns, and if you’re a good student of them (a hunter’s instinct?), you can get yourself into the perfect position ahead of time and with your shooting rig set up just right. Essentially, you get to see into the future!

RI: Interesting! But looking at that photo (and I think I saw it somewhere before, being credited as iconic), what makes a photo that special?

Me: In the early 20th century, photojournalism consisted of police mug shots and tediously posed portraits. Cartier-Bresson has created photojournalism as we know it today, where a photo can tell a story, not just make a trivial statement. So in a way it’s thanks to him that we say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Coming back to that photo above, I could take my camera when it starts to rain and go wait for an elegant elderly gentleman help a young lady over a puddle of water, while her Northface-clad 20-year-old suitor haplessly looks on from the other side, but realistically that image would be worthless, because that card’s already been played by Bresson last century. Think caveman drawings – pretty impressive back in those days, but not so much if you’re not a caveman.

What makes a body of work significant, I believe, is it representing a completely new and compelling way of seeing and feeling. A 2nd Dali, 2nd Warhol, 2nd Adams are next to worthless – one needs to find the first of themselves.

RI: That’s a cool insight. In terms of practical tips, how can we look better on photos? Is it true that camera adds 10 lbs?

Me: Camera captures a 2D projection of a 3D world, so in that way, yes, poorly thought out lighting or bad posing can easily add 10lbs. Lighting is complex – if you want to get to the bottom of it, study the work of Renaissance masters and especially Rembrandt. There’s a particular way of lighting named after him.

Posing wise, I get asked a lot, so I’ve written an article about it.

RI: Are there any posing “secrets”?

Me: You think I’d go around telling people those? Well, alright, just for you folks. ;) There are many; here’s just a short list:

  • Press the base of your tongue into the roof of your mouth,
  • Bring the mask of your face thee-quarters of an inch towards the camera,
  • Leave a quarter-inch gap between your teeth,
  • Bring the lower jaw a quarter-inch forward,
  • Smile with your cheeks not with the corners of your mouth,
  • Bring up the lower lid of your eyes without closing the upper lid.

I could go on; the point is, if one tries to do all this at once, they’ll have nothing but a tortured expression. Modeling is hard work, and, like anything else, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become effortlessly good at it.

RI: So what do you do with regular folks or beginner models who don’t have 10,000 hours of modeling experience?

Me: I do two things:

  1. I direct them and introduce tips relevant to their situation at a pace they can absorb. In that sense (using motion picture crew roles as an example), a photographer is supposed to be a director first, and a cameraman second.
  2. I over-shoot. If I take a thousand photos of you and give you the best 10, those will be your top 1% photos, naturally.

RI: Thank you, Sasha!

Me: Thank you, Michael! Those were petty good questions!

Gimme! When a Client Wants a Discount…

DiscountAs a photographer, but really as any business person selling a custom product, I’ve had a lot of people asking me to do the work for less money. I was pretty bad dealing with it at first (being brittle about your pricing and taking any assaults on it personally is about as bad as it gets), but I got better over time. You can benefit from my years of anguish by taking a look at these five simple ideas:

1. Don’t take it personally

This first point is the most important. For artists in particular, who pour their heart and soul into their work, its very recipient’s attempt to discount it can feel like a betrayal, or at the very least like a personal or professional insult. But it couldn’t be further from the truth from your (prospective) client’s perspective. They wouldn’t be there talking to you if they didn’t already like your work. They aren’t questioning you or the work – their target is the price alone.

Bargaining is deeply ingrained in many cultures, and even in the Western world, we’re conditioned “never accept the first offer”, “it never hurts to ask”, “reach for the sky”, “don’t be a sucker”, and so on. Also, let’s face it, artisan prices are somewhat arbitrary and everyone knows it. (If yours aren’t, i.e. are based on costs, I would suggest taking a harder look at the work and to whom and how you market it.) So, asking for a discount may simply be a client’s way to assure themselves that the price is real and they aren’t getting a worse deal than the “next guy”.

2. Create choices

This is a tricky one, because if you advertise more than a handful of standard choices, you’ll confuse and drive away many customers. However, creating choices and options can be a powerful tool during the negotiations to bridge the gap between what the customer wants to spend and what you are prepared to deliver, while at the same time giving them a genuine impression that you respect their needs and are prepared to go beyond your standard offerings to satisfy them.

3. Provide elastic delivery

After everything above is said and done, there are situations when you still have a 5-10% gap left to close for the same exact service. You can close that gap simply by internalizing some of the specifics of “the same exact service”. After all, you are the one delivering it, so you hold all the cards. It can either be a surprise “free gift” that the recipients of this last discount do not get, or any other extra (so long as that doesn’t compromise the quality of your core offering). Whatever field of endeavor you pursue, you should be able to sit down and come up with 5-10% of elasticity, then keep it to yourself for just this purpose.

4. Walk away nicely

If none of the above could close the price gap, then the person may be a great customer, just not the customer for you. Perhaps you can do business in different circumstances in the future. The way I look at it is very simply:

A happy customer is better than a happy non-customer who is better than a non-happy non-customer who is better than a non-happy customer.
A happy customer is better than a happy non-customer who is better than an unhappy non-customer who is better than an unhappy customer.

If you are getting too many people outside of your price range, rethink how your business is presenting itself across all media, and how your services are positioned and advertised.

Bonus. Position your work as a luxury / status symbol

This is a strategy, not a tactic, to alleviate the price pressure. People want to pay money for luxury, because that’s what makes it luxury or, more precisely, a Veblen good. In your positioning, instead of emphasizing how much the customer gets for his or her money (which encourages bargaining), focus on the uniqueness or exclusivity of the work, including any objective and subjective differentiating factors that support its top-tier placement.

How to reach the right people and give them the right assurance, is a topic of a whole other post – that yours truly is yet to write. Seek large, thriving businesses and successful people in tight social groups.

Dead Battery: the Future of OEM Obstructionism

Dead Battery: 3rd party EN-EL14AA recent Nikon firmware update for their mid-range and entry-level DSLRs (D5200, D5100, D3200, D3100) appears to have eliminated these cameras’ ability to be properly powered by many 3rd party EN-EL14A rechargeable batteries manufactured to-date.

The gesture isn’t new to Nikon, or unique to it. Other premier camera manufacturers as well seemingly wouldn’t miss an opportunity to slap 3rd party makers of batteries, lenses and accessories for their systems. The camera makers’ motives are understandable: they want the users to buy from them in order to capitalize on their R&D investment. Additionally, they want to minimize support overhead arising from their equipment interfacing with 3rd party products.

There’s no doubt that 3rd party manufacturers will, in time, produce batteries compatible with the new firmware, and that many users will take the risk buying them because of the savings. In my mind there are two questions less trivial:

  1. Is OEM technological obstructionism even sustainable beyond the short-term?
  2. Is it in the camera makers’ own best interest?

1. In this day and age of highly automated, globalized manufacture, the quality gap between OEM-branded and 3rd party products has been shrinking. While OEMs still have effective legal means of defense (patent and trade dress protection) against larger players in developed markets, with every passing year it will be more of an uphill battle for OEMs to use technical means to defend their market share for accessories that are simple, not innovative, and priced with a large profit margin.

2. We photo equipment users want to save money, but at the same time we don’t want the makers of our camera systems to go out of business or to relinquish their focus on quality and innovation.  The way I look at it, however, a $40 lens cap does not prompt OEMs to kick innovation into a high gear – instead it prompts them to become complacent. What works is disruptive innovation, similar to how RED has burst onto the indie film-making gear scene and got the incumbent manufacturers like SONY and Canon to stop resting on their laurels and deliver compelling offerings of their own that would otherwise have taken a decade or more to arrive in that price range.

I believe, the future belongs to:

  • Open source hardware and software,
  • Transparent interfaces and protocols,
  • User-driven development.

Does that leave a spot under the sun for traditional brands like NIKON and SONY? I think, more so than ever – so long as brands focus on their core and essence, and let go of 20th century ways of doing business. Namely:

  • A brand at its core is nothing more than a promise of a certain user experience. Make sure the experience being delivered is building the brand rather than eroding it. No crowd sourcing project or a knock-off lens cap would threaten a brand that is doing its job.
  • Innovation and quality control. Yes 3rd party makers can come up with anything eventually, but not right away and at the level of performance and consistent quality of OEMs. The latter can thus command a fair premium by staying ahead of the game.

Today, like in any other transformative period in history, folks who embrace and lead the change are the ones who benefit the most. I certainly wish Nikon, Canon, SONY and others to be among such beneficiaries.

Three Simple Ideas For Great Winter Holiday Pix

Christmas cards were like the Facebook of years past. But even now – in fact, perhaps now more than ever – people appreciate great photos. Here are three ideas for holiday pictures that are fun and go beyond the ordinary.

1. Little boys, big toys

Baby with Christmas OrnamentsWho’s cuter than cute little babies? Littler cute babies. Extra-large Christmas tree ornaments are really fun and festive and make your baby look even more precious. I got these ornaments at the Home Depot. Safety first: do not use fragile glass ornaments or those that shed glitter or have sharp edges or removable parts that aren’t secured. Clean and sanitize them before the shoot. Ornaments generally aren’t designed to be baby-safe, so, never leave the baby unattended with these ornaments, and take them away when done shooting.

2. Frolic in white

Family on a white backgroundWant all eyes to be on you? Eliminate all competing distractions. One fun way to do it is dress in white and pose on a white background. Hey, snow works great – just keep warm! White clothing will conspire to merge with your background, but there are three ways you can keep them apart:

  1. Shadows. Cast onto the plain background, shadows also lend a 3D feel to the image. That’s the approach I used for the shot above. Or you can try the shadowless look by blowing the background out to 100% pure white.
  2. Texture. Make sure the clothing and the background have different patterns to them.
  3. Color. You can make your background a subtly different shade of white from the main subject, and the eye will readily distinguish them. It’s not an urban legend that Eskimos have over 50 names for white. A very precise way to do it is by lighting the background with a different color temperature from the main subject.

3. Play with Christmas lights

Who says Christmas lights only go on a Christmas tree? A big blanket of lights can be used as both a prop and a light for some creative effects. I haven’t shot photos of my own illustrating this point; however, my colleagues Jennifer HardtJulie C Jacob (susiejulie), and Murilo Cardoso were very kind to allow me to feature their work here as great examples of this.

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Just make sure the lights and the wiring are not damaged, are safe to handle, and pets or small kids do not get tangled in them.

Happy Holidays!