Thursday, November 19, 2009

PP's Photographer in the Spotlight:

Rich Miller

I know several photojournalists who have made the transition from photographing news and sports to photographing weddings. Some of these people spent many years in the news media, and they made the transition to wedding photography successfully and, for the most part, seamlessly.

Rich Miller is one of those. He began his pro photography career at age 23, spending 24 years as a staff photographer for The Indianapolis News and The Indianapolis Star and taking on exciting, grueling and tedious assignments along the way, as do all media photographers.

Many shooters claim that covering a news or sports story with a camera gives them invaluable experience to cover one of the most important days of a man and woman's life in an artful, yet documentary fashion, and their clientele appreciates the trained eye and non-intrusive approach that these professionals give to the smallest of detail when permanently capturing a milestone life event, one that can be very complicated and stressful for so many of the key participants.

"I have considerable experience in editorial, fashion and sports photography, which have molded my approach," Miller explains at the Web site of his wedding photography business, RichWeddings. "I shoot each wedding with a photojournalist-style, and tend to shoot freely, but I also incorporate some traditional portraiture. I see myself as a photojournalist, 'writing' a story with pictures, a story of one of the happiest and most memorable days in the life of the bride and groom and their families."

Rich is Photo Potpourri's "Photographer in the Spotlight" this month, and he graciously took the time to answer some questions about his craft for us.

Rich, my first question is one I ask all my "spotlight" profiles: How and when did you get into photography, and did your interest grow gradually or were you hooked right away? Do you point to any photographers you've found to be inspirational and/or that motivate you in your work?

I got my first camera as a Christmas gift at age 15. It was a Polaroid. I was hooked from that point on, and I realized photography was the only artistic outlet for me. Having been raised by two artists and being the youngest of five, with all four older siblings interested in art from an early age, I grew up surrounded by all kinds of artwork, but I couldn’t draw a stick figure. I remember pawing through the Time-Life series of books on photography before I learned to read (hence my preference for pictures to words!)

From an early age, I remember being impressed by the B&W work of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Minor White. In later years, as my photography evolved into weddings, I admired the work of George Hurrell.

More recently, my work has been influenced by Joyce Wilson, Joe Buissink, David Beckstead and Yervant. The opportunity to study with each of these great photographers has had a profound impact on my wedding photography.

You spent many years as a photojournalist. Can you put into words what that experience was like? How and why did you like it or find it appealing or satisfying?

During my 24-year career at The Indianapolis News and The Indianapolis Star, the vast majority of assignments were somewhat mundane, sprinkled in with some real plums. I routinely got a front-row seat to events that many people never witness in a lifetime.

The cumulative experience in that tenure taught me to be versatile with the camera. Photographing homeless people to presidents, and everything in between, was wonderful training for weddings. I shot sporting events, editorial, food and fashion over the years. One aspect of my job I liked the most was coming to work each day not knowing what it may bring. Rarely were two days the same.

Of course, seeing my work published was satisfying, especially when photos I was really proud of got a lot of ink. One time, one of my photos of a game-winning touchdown catch during a Colts/Jets game, in Peyton Manning’s rookie year, ran six columns wide in The Star and also in The New York Times sports pages. I received a complimentary note from John Biever of Sports Illustrated (who I think is one of the best football shooters in the country). To me, that was like having Ansel Adams say “Hey, nice landscape photo.”

On the flip side, I was disappointed many times. I worked hard to get pictures that never saw the light of day. That’s just the way it was.

I know many photojournalists, on breaking news stories, have to act quickly and instinctively. Did those skills come to you naturally, or did it take some time for you to know you could turn to the right gear and capture the best angle in very little time?

It took a lot of time and plenty of experience to make the camera an extension of my eye, hand and my heart. Mastering the mechanics of photography is imperative. I couldn’t fumble around with camera settings, exposure and aperture while something was quickly unfolding in front of me.

Early on, it was on-the-job training, learning to swim in the deep end. After years of experience, it has come instinctive, almost without really thinking about it. That’s how the best photographers can capture elusive moments, all the while being technically proficient.

This mastery of the camera’s technical aspects allows me to “think outside the box” between the safe shots, looking for creative angles, composition or different ways to visually interpret a subject.

Can you describe a few of your most cherished moments or remembrances as a photojournalist? Are you willing to admit to any embarrassments while on the job? Or talk about any disappointments -- or the most difficult aspects of the job?

Certainly one of the most memorable moments for me was during my internship shortly after I started at The News. I remember the thrill I felt seeing my photo of Tom Sneva on the front page of The News after he won the 1983 Indy 500. Another memory, again at the Indy 500, was shooting the start of the race from the flag stand in 2002. I was one of maybe four men up there, having the race cars literally thunder below my feet. That was a very exciting moment for me, because I grew up watching the Indy 500. The start of the race always still sends chills down my spine. The opportunity to witness it from such a vantage point was unbelievable.

Another time in the early 1990’s, I rode a freight elevator with Cindy Crawford and a few other supermodels after a Donna Karan fashion show in New York City. Talk about a thorn amidst the roses!

I saw Market Square Arena demolished from the Channel 13 helicopter. There were countless other assignments that were really cool, but these are a few off the top of my head.

I am reluctant to talk about this, but honesty is the best policy. The low point of my career at the newspaper, which was without question the most embarrassing, was being suspended without pay for submitting a photo that had false information in the caption. A reporter blew the whistle, I admitted my mistake and took my medicine. I learned integrity of the newspaper, no matter how mundane the subject matter of the photo, is more important than fulfilling the assignment given to me at the time.

Early on in my photojournalism career, I thought it was fun to be in the midst of many of my peers while working big events like the 500. Later, though, the idea of competing with dozens of other photographers, all trying to get “the shot,” became less appealing. I (just speaking for myself) found it very difficult to flourish in that type of environment. This is a big part of my natural progression into wedding photography. I am the main gun at a wedding, and others respect that. It’s also rewarding to be welcomed and appreciated for what I do.

How did you like the travel involved with the photojournalism job (e.g., pro sports shots and/or any special assignments for local-generated stories, if it applies)? Any such assignments you could quickly point to as most memorable?

I did travel for many assignments. Sounds fun, but it’s not all that glamorous. Many of the assignments that I traveled for were Colts or Pacer games. I was in Madison Square Garden or a Pacers-Knicks playoff game the night Reggie Miller single-handedly killed the Knicks with his 25-point fourth quarter.

What would you point to as your most difficult assignment? And could you elaborate on why?

Once I drew the assignment to cover a funeral of a boy who died from a drug overdose. It was just awful. I felt like a vulture, toting around my telephoto lens like I was covering a sporting event. Some kids made gestures at me. I could hardly blame them. I was totally unwelcome and I understood why. Even though I didn’t want to be there, I was doing my job and had to cover the funeral service. I reasoned that if one kid saw the emotional impact this had on this boy’s family and friends, then thought twice before doing drugs because of these images, then my efforts were not in vain.

Was there a lot of give and take regarding tips/tricks of the trade among your Star photo colleagues? How critical, or valuable, would you say that aspect of the job was (i.e., being able share trade tips with other shooters) -- or could have been -- all those years?

I did learn quite a bit from my peers early on about film, exposure and darkroom printing techniques. I also read books on photography and looked at pictures everywhere ... magazines, newspapers, advertisements, catalogs. However, my real education in photography came from the school of trial and error. First-hand experience is really the only way to learn.

How easy or difficult was it for you to make the transition from film to digital when technological change hit the newspaper profession? Are there some details/examples you could offer to help us understand the frustration (or ease, if that's the case) you and other photographers dealt with to make it work as seamlessly as possible?

The first digital cameras came into The Star’s photo department around 1996, as I recall. In my opinion, the first generations of digital cameras were nothing compared to film. They were bulky, image quality was a real issue, and I was resistant to using them. However, the writing was on the wall, and we all had to shoot with them. I learned Photoshop on the fly and had to learn how to transmit photos on the road. This is before the Internet was mainstream.

Now, I haven’t shot film, or been in a wet darkroom, in a very long time. I have a Hasselblad system that sits unused in my closet. Digital cameras have evolved so rapidly, each generation exponentially better than the last. It has revolutionized the way I shoot, being able to see the image right away on an LCD screen on the back of the camera. I can now shoot with impunity, take more chances and be more creative. This does not mean, however, I “spray and pray.” While I do shoot much more than I did with 35mm film, a quality photograph still boils down to the content of the image.

Dovetaling a bit from the subject above. How did you feel about the move for photographers to learn and shoot videography in your later years at The Star? How difficult was it to be expected to do both -- still and video -- on the same assignments?

My later years at The Star, I was based in the North Bureau, and never had to shoot video for the newspaper before I left in 2007. Sometimes I wish I did have that experience, though. While a still photograph captures a moment in time, there seems to be a continuing convergence of still and video imagery. My newest camera (a Canon 5d Mark II) has the capability to shoot high-def video, an option I’ve barely explored. I think audio, and editing long, extended shots make video a completely different animal than still photography.

How did you gravitate toward wedding photography? Is it something you always had been interested in? Or was it a natural progression kind of thing? Do you feel your photojournalism background helps you in any way when deciding how to approach a wedding or engagement shoot? If so, how?

Without a doubt, weddings were a natural progression for me. With a background heavy on sports and fashion, that experience blended perfectly for weddings. Being able to anticipate moments, and capture them in a split second, is still a challenge, but that cumulative experience has been invaluable in my current path of photography. I’ve learned to take what the day gives us, and think quickly on my feet.

My approach to wedding photography is very fluid. My head is on a swivel all day. Sometimes I’m a gunslinger. Sometimes I wait patiently for moment to unfold before the camera. I’ve worked hard on my portraiture and lighting techniques, shooting food and small details, looking for the architecture that builds a wedding. I have to be versatile with the camera and at the same time stay involved with people. My newspaper experience has helped me more than I can say.

Do most clientele trust you do guide them when it comes to selecting shots or poses for weddings/engagements? Are you open to their suggestions? If a budding photographer came to you and expressed interest in doing wedding photography, what advice would you give them? Is there any "must have" gear or types of software that a wedding photographer should have?

Most people who hire me know my style and trust me to look for the most flattering ways to photograph them. Wedding photography is a mixture of candid and “photo coached” images. Often, when I meet a client, whether at an engagement session or on the wedding day, they may look at me uncomfortably and ask “what do you want me to do?” It may take awhile to get them to loosen up, feel at ease in front of the camera and get them to trust that I am there for them.

Most people do look for guidance when it comes to certain poses, and I offer suggestions. I love it when my clients collaborate with me and bring their ideas to the shoot that make the pictures special to them. I am at my best when my clients become comfortable with my presence and simply allow the candid moments to unfold over the course of the day.

If a young photographer asked me what to do to become a wedding photographer, I would say:

1. Do it because you’re passionate about it. Be prepared to work long hours and have great patience.
2. Master the basic mechanics of the camera and posing & lighting techniques.
3. Have great empathy and genuinely like people to be a successful wedding photographer.

As far as equipment and software goes, competition among manufacturers has brought much good and quality gear to our fingertips at affordable prices. I always tell young shooters the images are only as good as the lenses you use. The best camera available is only as good as the lens mounted on it. Invest in quality glass. Find an editing program that makes workflow as efficient as possible. I use Photo Mechanic and Adobe CS3, and Yervant’s Page Gallery for album design.

Speaking of collaborating with clientele to compose stellar shots for a wedding shoot ... is that what happened in the image of the bride kicking a soccer ball toward the line of groomsmen at the top of this post?

Yes. The bride, a former soccer player for Butler University, brought the soccer ball to her wedding and wanted to shoot some photos after the ceremony down at the football field at the Butler Bowl. The shot of her kicking the ball into the guys lined up may have come either from her or one of the guys. I can't remember ... but it was very spontaneous. Either way, I said "YES!! Let's do it!" And so it went. I have never seen a bride in her gown kick a soccer ball since.

In your transition to wedding photography ... did it help to have the familiarity with photo editing software (Photoshop) that you did in your years at The Star, and do you think that helped you develop skills in any other wedding-related photo software you have to employ to deliver the finished product to customers?

Yes, having previous experience withPhotoshop has been invaluable. In addition to any postproduction, I also design my own wedding albums using Yervant’s Page Gallery. Having worked as an editor on the photo desk at The Star has also been helpful when choosing photos for wedding books that I think tell the best chronological story with the best visual flow. I am a prolific shooter at weddings, and it’s not at all unusual to have to edit through 3-4,000 frames on Sundays.

Can you discuss the differences in personal satisfaction you experience(d) and/or enjoyed in your work as a photojournalist vs. that of a wedding photographer?

I loved seeing my pictures in print. That was always a kick for me, and frankly I miss that a little bit. I also miss the camaraderie with the other photographers on the staff at the paper.

Honestly I can say, in my current line of work, it is very fulfilling for me as an artist to know that my photographs are hung in frames on my clientele’s homes, and their wedding photos will become family heirlooms.

Finally ... I know you've won many awards as a photojournalist. But have you ever had any of your work displayed and/or sold in a public gallery or published in media other than those that are directly related to news reporting? If not, is that something that you'd like to do?

Not really. Most of my private work never goes any further than on the family room wall. I have had a few wedding photos published in local magazines. Maybe if I earn recognition in the arena of wedding or portrait photography, by way of winning print competitions, my work may be published in trade journals. For now, I’m very content by pleasing my clientele.

If you'd like so see more of Rich's work, follow these links:

Rich's Weddings Web site

Rich's blog

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