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Photography Challenge and Lessons You Can Learn by Doing a Personal Project

In this article from an amateur photographer and friend of mine, Marcus, you’ll hear how he stumbled upon doing a personal photography project. See what he learned by doing it and what you can take away as lessons for yourself. Then take on the monthly photography challenge and make some trading cards. – Cheers, Darlene.


I’m going to share one of the projects that I started over the last year. The final result was less important than doing the work to solve all the problems that arose. I used a project mentality to give me direction, structure, and a timeline. I’m an amateur photographer, and it’s a long story, but I shoot film exclusively though I’ve only been shooting for about five years in total. Because most of that time has been spent doing street photography (combined with the fact that I shoot film) the subjects almost never get to see what I’ve shot.

Barista Trading Cards – Intro

One day, during a break at one of my favorite coffee shops, I mentioned that I had taken enough photos of baristas to make a whole set of baseball cards out of them. From that whimsical comment, and a little encouragement from the baristas, I decided that would be my next project. I set out to make a pack of 10 cards. I shared the idea with the baristas and got lots of willing support, so I started shooting with that purpose in mind.

This would get me out of my usual pattern and change the structure around my photography. For one thing, my images would be seen by more people other than just me. I’d have accountability to the subject. “Do I really look like that?!” The subjects would know that I was taking their photo. They’d be part of the process. I would have to actively work with them and I’d get to learn a whole bunch of new skills, including design, printing, and digital post-production (photo editing/graphic design). It also led me to take an interest in a whole bunch of other skills I had always previously glossed over as unimportant in my practice, which I’ll talk about a bit more later on.

Dealing with Low Light

The first issue I ran into was low light and the fact that the baristas are in motion most of the time. So, I needed to focus faster, pan the camera, use a higher ISO, larger apertures, and faster shutter speeds. I tried all of these with mixed results. It was actually a lot like doing street photography indoors. My hit rate was similarly very low.

Read: Tips for Low Light Photography for more on this topic.

After a couple weeks of this, I realized I’d need to change my approach and ask the baristas to slow down or pause for me. Essentially, this meant I started to pose them.

Posing

Though I hadn’t specifically planned to pose the baristas, I would occasionally give them a suggestion or two. This had the advantage of slowing them down enough to get a sharp photo, but I found it very difficult to give quick, easily followed instructions. You can see one of my early attempts at this. I was trying to get her to form a “V” with her arms. You can tell she’s uncomfortable and maybe a better pose would have been to put her hands on her heart. It was awkward for both of us and I plan to practice in the mirror before I do this again.

I went back two or three times before I finally got the three photos below where she looks much more relaxed. I think it was helpful that I stepped back (using an 85mm lens) and she became more comfortable with me pointing the camera at her. Eventually, she leaned on the counter and that day we got the single best photo of her. Although I wasn’t deliberately posing her – I just took advantage of the fact that she was doing what made her naturally comfortable – I’ve mentally added that to a list of poses to try.

I generally end up with a posed photo for the front of the card and an action shot in black and white for the back. I had very little appreciation for how difficult this can be! Posing is one of the things I’m going to work on as I produce the next set of cards. This is one of those topics that had been unimportant to me, but now that I had a need for the skill, I suddenly became aware of every article, and online posing class.

Editing

So despite what I said earlier about her relaxed position leaning on the counter, this is the photo I ultimately picked for her card. I shot this from below her eye level and it just isn’t flattering. I can see that now, and I’m not sure why I picked this photo anyway.

Clearly, this is one of those lessons that I’m still learning. My editing needs to be better organized and I need to create some kind of standard or checklist for it. This is another skill to focus on as I go forward.

Adding Light

Up to this point, I’d only used available light and no flash (too distracting during business hours), but I was desperate to get another stop or two of light to help me get sharper photos. So I bought a Lume Cube and Manfrotto LumiMuse LED. These are good for portability and throwing light onto a subject but they create a “hard” light when used in the confined space behind an espresso machine and they were a different color balance than the other lighting in the room.

So, I created a new set of problems by thinking I could just go out and buy gear. Here’s an example of what you get when you have no idea what you’re doing.

On the left, adding a point source of light too close to the subject created a high contrast area on their face and also created an overly bright environment. It’s probably placed a little too low as well. A quick online search tells me it should be a little above eye level. The photo on the right isn’t as clumsy, but it looks obvious that another light has been added that doesn’t blend in with the rest. It “feels” unnatural. I suspect it’s because the light is too strong and directional.

This brief, but unsatisfactory, experience has me suddenly interested in lighting tutorials. Another subject I’d never paid any attention. There’s a ton of stuff to learn here and I’m excited to work on it.

Note: Check out a free lesson from our Portrait Lighting Fundamentals course if this interests you as well! 

Image Quality – Sharpness

The cards are only 2.5×3.5” so the images didn’t have to be tack sharp and I could crop heavily if needed. As a fairly new photographer, this helped me get over my fear of disappointing the subjects, yet still required me to be critical of my photos in a way that I had not been with my street photography. For example, even at this small size, I could see that a lot of my candidate photos lacked sharpness around the subject’s eyes.

Generally, I wanted at least the subject’s nearest eye to be sharply in focus, but I soon discovered that many of my photos didn’t meet even this one small given of a casual portrait. I would say that almost none of what I shot for this project met the definition of “tack” sharp, but I’m working on that and I think it’s mostly “good enough.”

Design, Composition, and Layout

When shooting, I tried to use the rule of thirds for composition but found that when I was putting the cards together, this really didn’t make much of a difference because the photos were so small and I wanted to showcase the barista’s face. I zoomed in and out, cropped, and moved things around pretty much as needed.

One of the skills I learned was cloning or painting bothersome objects out. I also learned how to liquefy a double chin and I think I got away with it. I picked up a tip about pulling a subject out of an otherwise low contrast scene using Unsharp Mask. I used Affinity Photo for editing, but from what I can tell, it’s pretty much the same as doing it in Photoshop. I used this at least two or three times on the final card images.

For creating the layout, I used Affinity Designer. It was cheaper than the Adobe options and was “good enough.” Just as important as the software, I discovered that there were a lot of required elements depending on what was going to happen to the final product. I produced the first cards without any intention of monetizing them. Because of this, I didn’t really create a logo. I lamely created a name for the cards “Fourth Wave Barista” and didn’t put any kind of website or Instagram tag on them. I used only the fonts that were on my computer and those turned out to be the only consistency throughout the cards, as I variously used baseball poses, coffee action shots, posed portrait-style photos, headshots as well as 3 quarter body shots, and all manner of smiling and unsmiling pics.

For this project, I don’t think it mattered, but I could see that if I was a pro with an actual art director telling me what to do, I’d have to be a lot more disciplined (or if I intended to use this in a portfolio somehow). That’s the great part about this being my own project, though.

One side-note: I took photos for the first five or so cards and as I was reviewing the first proofs, I put the cards up side-by-side and realized all the male baristas were looking directly into the camera whereas neither of the female baristas were turned that way. I decided to go back and get more photos of them looking directly at the camera.

Printing

Even though this was my own project and there was no specific deadline to meet, I set one anyway—just to make sure I actually finished it. If I had known how hard it would be to find paper for this project, I would have started that task a lot earlier. I bought:

  • HP 4×6 Everyday Glossy (single-sided)
  • Canon 5×7 Semi-gloss Photo paper (single-sided)
  • Red River 5×7 Lustre Card Duo (double-sided)
  • Canon 8.5×11 Premium Matte (single-sided)
  • Moab Lasal 5×7 Matte (double-sided)
  • Projet 5×7 Matte Card Stock (double-sided)
  • Epson 8.5×11 Premium Presentation (double-sided)
  • Red River 8.5×11 32lb Premium Matte (double-sided)
  • Hammerhill 8.5×11 28lb Digital Color Copy paper (double-sided)
  • Epson 8.5×11 Glossy Photo Paper from Costco (single-sided)

The cards are two-sided, so why did I buy single-sided paper? I was hoping that even though the back sided wasn’t coated, that I could still print on it. Wrong. I also thought that I might be able to glue two single-sided prints back to back to create a nice thick card. This would also eliminate the need to print the fronts and backs of cards in perfect alignment (registration). It works, but try not to do incorporate glue in anything you have to do consistently. What a mess!

I wanted to use glossy or semi-gloss paper because I liked how vibrant the colors looked, but it’s hard to find double-sided glossy paper and from a practical standpoint, handling the cards with your bare hands left them smudged with fingerprints. Also, text on glossy paper looked terrible. I was going to tell you about how I “color corrected and color matched” but really, I just got so tired of testing all kinds of paper, that I don’t even know what color profiles I was using with what papers.

In the end, I prioritized the weight and feel of the cards over the sparkly brightness of the gloss papers. Only the matte papers gave me consistent prints with good registration and readable text with a decently heavy feel. My final paper choice was the Projet Matte Card Stock. I’m sure a professional graphic designer would’ve saved me A LOT of time, money, and effort on this one aspect.

Interviews and Miscellaneous Facts

I photographed 11 baristas and made 20 cards for each of them. In order to get the notes for the back of the cards, I interviewed each barista, going through a two-page list of questions that took about an hour to complete. Once I’d done the interview, I’d write a draft of the text and review it with the barista. I’d also make a proof of the card for them to approve. Because I never intended to monetize them, I never asked them to sign a model release.

After I got approval, I printed the cards, two at a time, cut them out and packaged them into random packs of two. It took about an hour to print 20 cards on my little Canon all-in-one printer. All told, I used two complete ink refill kits, which were mostly generic inks. This includes printing all the experiments with papers, making proofs, and mistakes. It was surprisingly inexpensive, from an ink standpoint, as I can buy generic refill packs for about $7 each.

The much larger expense turned out to be paper. For every 20 cards I printed, I threw away about four cards. An 80% yield rate for you planners out there. I’m afraid to sum up all the money I put into this project, but I’m guessing it’s around $500 (I did do my totals, in the end, it cost me $400 for film, paper and a printed book for the baristas, and about $100 for paper and ink for the cards). A good amount of that would be for film and processing, though. If I were to do this for the money I’d definitely do it with a digital camera!

Lessons Learned

I’m not going to sum up all the things I learned. I’d just encourage you to give yourself a project and then go out and work it. I learned so many things that I literally couldn’t sum them all up. Most importantly, it got me out shooting when I might not have gone (I had a deadline, after all) and learning about other parts of photography that I’d completely neglected. I feel much clearer about my abilities and know where I’m going to focus my energies to get better.

Your turn . . .

Photography Challenge – Create a Set of Trading Cards

Choose a small group of folks to feature in your own set of trading cards, I recommend four or fewer. Obvious subjects might be your immediate family, your children’s teachers and assistants, the clerks at your local camera store, the mail-person, waste collection truck operator, and yard maintenance crew.

Shoot a color posed photo for the front and an “action” photo on the back. Put some fun stuff on the back of the card, like their favorite color or number, the next item on their bucket list, their hometown, their superpower, their dream job, the last time they sang at karaoke, their favorite song, etc.

Print a few up and give each person a full set of cards

Go with a double-sided matte paper that works in your printer. I recommend a photo paper that’s over 190gsm in weight, but don’t get too choosy. Your local camera store will have a few, very few, but don’t get too hung up on it if all you can find is heavy-duty card stock. The Projet card stock I used is a house brand of Adorama. Black and white photos look really nice on matte paper.

Make yourself a template in software. I used OpenOffice Draw when I first started thinking about this project. The template will simply be a rectangle about 2.5×3.5”. If you feel really professional about it, you can draw crop marks at the corners so when you cut the cards, there will be no visible lines.

5×7” photo paper is a good size (4×6” works, too depending on whether the crop marks will fit), but so is a half sheet of letter sized paper (5.5×8.5”) because you can fit two cards on one sheet. Any more than that and it gets frustrating to see the whole thing go pear shaped when the front is just slightly out of alignment with the back and you lose four cards worth of ink and paper instead of just two. Trust me on this!

To make it easier to register the front side to the back, I recommend centering the printed area horizontally and vertically on the page. Even if you have a printer that will automatically print front and back, you’re probably better off just printing one side at a time, flipping it over and printing the reverse side. This is especially true if the ink doesn’t dry quickly. I found that most printers will push your design to one side or another no matter what you do so run the front first, and then adjust the margins of the back to get that side to line up.

Note from Darlene: there is no prize for this month’s challenge. Your reward will be to have an experience like Marcus did and learn things you never imagined. If you undertake this challenge (I will leave the comment opened indefinitely) please share with us what you did, some of your images, and what you learned by doing it. 


Author bio:

Marcus Kaneshiro is an amateur maker of things with an unspoken goal of making art. He’s a Supply Chain expert who values the human element of production. One of these projects will eventually be his side-hustle. The Barista Trading Cards can be seen at FourthWaveBarista.com or follow them on @FourthWaveBarista on Instagram.

  

  • Tom Palmer

    WOW what an awesome article. I could see this as a cool way to expand your personal brand even if it’s not photography. Would be great to do as a welcome to the neighbor hood for new home owners and connect with local business. one again Inspirational article by Marcus and Darlene. Thanks 🙂

  • wonderful project! thanks for sharing and this is inspiring!

    • Marcus

      Thanks! It’s pretty raw to show all those painfully obvious (esp in hindsight) mistakes, but I’ve been enjoying the endless learning and “a ha!” moments that go with it. 😉

  • Cindy

    This is GREAT, Marcus! I love the project itself and its many dimensions, and the way in which you explain here the practical application of skills – both things we don’t know until we try and things we know but forget to do anyway – is terrific. Thank you. And thanks, Darlene, great post.

    • Marcus

      Cindy, the other thing that keeps happening as I share it locally with people is that they give me a zillion ideas about how to spin it into something else. One guy who runs a tech company suggested I use it as a way to simply “list” all of the baristas in Portland and make it easy to filter and find them. There are many who have suggested mini-booklets, books, elaborate biz cards, etc. Lots of ways to riff off of work that really had no real potential marketable value. So, that’s an interesting twist to this experience.

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