I was asked by Lara Jade if I would review her new DVD. Though I have never ‘reviewed’ anything on my blog before, neither have I ever really had something given to me that I want to review. So, thanks Lara. And here goes my impartial take. I hope Lara knows what she got herself in for
I was excited to watch the DVD, as I had seen the trailer. From the marketing it looked delicious and so tempting, I can only imagine the fervour of both young and seasoned ‘togs sticking this on their Xmas wishlists. I looked forward to watching a few hours’ worth of photography-related entertainment. After all, there aren’t many programmes on TV about photography, or at least beyond a simplistic layperson level!
I didn’t want to review it just from my point of view, but thought of questions that the potential buyer would want to ask: can it teach a beginner photographer anything? Can it teach an advanced photographer anything? Is it marketed correctly? Is it worth the money? ($250/$200 launch price).
I was aware most of my enjoyment came from seeing Joey and Lara behind the scenes. Being fairly familiar with their work, it was largely a pleasure of recognition and curiosity about their physical presence as photographers. The DVD is divided into parts, showing Lara and Joey each on a shoot as part of the four ‘challenges’, each with screen capture films showing them at work in RAW workflow and Photoshop.
The photography in this DVD is stunning. I am bored by 90% of photography out there but I was captivated by both Lara and Joey’s images throughout. Of course, you only have to go online to see their images, so it’s the content of the explanational material that is the object to review here.
The first shooting film, showing Joey shooting a rock star on a studio roof, is very comprehensive. Joey is careful to go into detail about every stage he went through (lenses, lighting, filters, techniques, forethought, contingencies… right through to how the lighting affected the clothing of the subject, and even where he bought the ‘cheap ass’ light fixture from). I really feel like I am in a direct conversation with him, having my questions answered. In the editing films, I like how both Lara and Joey show the other shots from a session beside the selected one – the rejected/sidelined shots – i.e. how they get to the ‘before’ and not just the typical ‘before and after’. This is something important that many other workshops/tutorials neglect! In some of the shoots though, there are gaps in the full information about everything that went into the shoot, a bit like seeing a dish being made, but not getting the full recipe. It’s still enjoyable to view.
I like that Lara speaks about other aspects as well as the photography itself; her input on styling for example, in choosing a model. She is showing that there is more to photography than the f-stop, what you might consider the more ‘feminine’ pulse of photography. And I truly believe that the photography workshop industry lacks that in abundance, so to see a photographer like Lara in action makes me happy. But, this is a workshop DVD and it needs strong workshop material, so I would have liked Lara to address a few more technical topics to give a more complete picture.
To get something clear however, as a photographer myself, I am often not bothered about technical information and I am not saying that the crux of a photograph is the gear and settings used. It’s just that the DVD purports to tell you everything about the process, so I went into watching it believing that I would be shown everything. And with every photo that comes onscreen is a overview of its camera settings, so we are being told that they are integral to understanding the image. Some of the settings however are not explained, such as a mystifyingly high ISO and shutter speed on one of Lara’s images from the Shoot a Stranger challenge. During another of her shoots, she uses a constant/HMI light stating she wants a cool look, but has to obtain this later in Lightroom by changing the white balance drastically, going against her statement that non-destructive editing is important. So I wondered why she had not changed her white balance accordingly in the shooting. It really doesn’t matter – every photographer has quirks, makes mistakes, can fix things later – it is of little consequence! But it would be helpful if these things were mentioned, to avoid confusing the DVD viewer who wants to think and learn.
Lara refers to digital noise from a high ISO as flattering film camera ‘grain’, and that she wants ‘a nostalgic film feel across her images’ (in the way I understood this then, across all her work.) I was surprised to hear that, as noise really isn’t the same as grain, and I see Lara’s work as the opposite anyway: modern, professionally digital, unnoisy and clean-edged images, and there isn’t any visible noise in most her portfolio. I believe that in fact she only uses high ISO for some select shoots, not all, so it’s an example of a topic I did not feel fully enlightened on. Contrary to the description of the DVD, I felt there was a subtle, maybe even oblivious, insulating membrane in parts that prevents the viewer from truly getting the nuts and bolts of everything that goes into the photographers’ process. I don’t necessarily mean that they purposefully hold back tangible ’secrets’; just that they sometimes talk performatively rather than straight from the heart.
I liked the diversity in production value of the shoots: from the Pacific Ocean, to a street in India, to a deadly road in Bolivia, to a London studio. I think for a DVD marketing itself as a fashion/commercial workshop, it would be good to see a more ‘conventional’ fashion shoot somewhere in the series of films: something that shows shooting with a standard key, back and fill light. That is what I would have liked to learn more about. Because the shoots were all a bit quirky in their technique, it was a bit like having the icing without the cake… but a bit better – like a whole cake made out of icing. Perhaps, though, it is a covertly good thing that there are no ‘norms’ in this video, after all, photography is a bag of surprises, random encounters, thinking on your feet, and finding inspiration in unusual places.
For one of Joey’s shoots, he says to the camera that he has decided to shoot in an apartment because NYC studios are too expensive (admittedly ‘shooting last minute’ specifically for the DVD). Whilst the shoot worked just fine in the apartment, and is a great example to other photographers on practical ways to save money, part of me was curious that surely his shoot deserved the cost of studio hire for a DVD that will be sold. But then, he does say he seldom hires studios. Also, when Lara turns up to her London studio for the birthday-themed shoot to find just a ring flash and a HMI light, I wondered upon the somewhat strange situation that as a professional photographer (on a DVD teaching others how to be professional photographers), that she had not checked the studio’s lighting beforehand, or brought her own gear. However, these are young photographers: fresh, rebellious and with work ten times more interesting than a lot of older, more experienced photographers that do things by-the-book. It is of personal opinion to each viewer as to whether that qualifies them to make and sell a workshop DVD.
I couldn’t help feeling that many illustrative shots could have been edited down (such as Joey’s translator shown speaking Spanish for 20 seconds, or wide views of set-ups shown for longer than we need), as well as the time devoted to Lara’s long anecdotes and also Joey’s non-photography-related jesting in front of the camera, which struck me as a little self-indulgent; it may be enjoyable, but my mind kept going back to the person who pays $200 or $250 to watch what seems more like a documentary than a workshop. I found myself saying ‘ok now let’s see some photography’, or ‘nice, so show me what the shots look like!’ a few times.
I enjoyed Joey’s India shoot; the set-up was described well, and I enjoyed the ambience of the footage (glad no music was put over those shots), I almost felt like I was there. I also liked seeing Lara approach strangers to shoot in the streets of New York, that part made me feel as if I was watching an objective TV programme where the photographer was making a real effort to step outside their comfort zone.
A difference I noticed between Joey and Lara’s footage was the quality of camera work. Lara’s was all shot with a manual focus (most likely a 5DMkII), which meant that the shots kept going blurry and was quite distracting. The editing also left in a lot of unnecessarily long shots on Lara in action, like cutaways trying to become real meat. We see her close-up at work, directing the model but we don’t see their reaction, so we can’t make narrative sense of what’s going on, and the footage becomes merely decorative, to say ‘this is a fashion photographer, and this is the model’.
This all made me reflect on the disadvantages of watching a film not edited by an objective eye, and not ‘professional’ in the strictest sense, but I also reminded myself that today we see so much more than TV would typically sanction, and this DVD is an example of photographers autonomously creating something that would not have had the means to do only a decade ago.
Probably my main critical observation was lack of discussion of inspirations. Photographers don’t exist in a vacuum. Work doesn’t birth itself on another planet free from all external influence. All artists’ work is a collective flow of ideas: like water running its rivulets into the work of each single artist in existence; the water can’t collect in a self-contained pool and say ‘this is it, this is where it begins’. To gain more of a credible glance at their processes, I wanted to hear about what influences went into the outcome of each of Lara and Joey’s shoots, and what inspires them generally. The complete absence of this conflicted with their expectation that their own work on the DVD will inspire others.
So, in answer to my questions:
Can it teach a beginner photographer anything? –Yes, although some beginners might find themselves out of their depth if they expect explanation of the extreme basics: it’s story-led, with a cocktail of all kinds of interesting things coming together at once.
Can it teach an advanced photographer anything? – Though I felt more excited to watch Lara’s videos, I feel I got more directly useful bits of info from Joey. But good photographers’ work can seldom be translated into easy-to-digest nuggets on technique to be swallowed up by the viewer. Whilst Joey can tell us about ND filters and his homemade modifiers, Lara just takes really great pictures, with simple uncomplicated methods: well-composed, well-styled and very well selected in the edit process. There’s nothing much to ‘report on’ about her process, except for her excellent eye. And you can’t teach someone ‘the eye’ as much as you can’t teach a blind person to see. The truthful paradox is: the more experimental, ‘unique’ and interesting any photographer’s work is, the less it can be ‘taught’ to people at all.
It is marketed correctly? –Probably not quite, more documentary style for the LJ and JL fans, demonstrating their own idiosyncrasies. But using the semantics of ‘workshop’ and ‘learning’ in the packaging obviously sells better. A couple of hardcore technical bits (such as channelling the energy spent on the comical boxing ring animation, into dynamic lighting or composition breakdowns instead) may have weighted it more into the marketing’s favour, and so too a technique-based structure rather than a story-based structure (though I enjoy the latter more). I love the artistic DVD cover, the inventive concept of rivalry, and the colourful array of shooting situations – so much more interesting than bog-standard stuff of typical tradeshow ilk.
Is it worth the money? –Depends if, based on the above, you learn from it or not. It may not be as useful to someone who does not know LJ and JL’s work beforehand. It may be expensive for a DVD, but let’s not forget that physical workshops are invariably more expensive than this, and can have less effort or energy put into them.