“Crap! My shutter release button is stuck” I said as I dismounted from the back on a 7-ton troop transport vehicle. I had finally returned from a multi-day convoy mission. We resupplied Marines in remote combat outposts throughout southern Helmand Province of Afghanistan. During the convoy, I captured hundreds of images of Marines and Afghan National Police in action side-by-side. My rifle and camera were the two most important things in my life. They had been caked with the fine powdery sand that was near impossible to avoid during the long drives through the desert country. And now my most important tool was not working. It was mid-morning. We had been traveling all through the night. The sun was beating down over the dirt wall barriers of Camp Bastion when I walked into the tent where the rest of the Combat Camera team had setup operations so I could get this issue fixed.
“Don’t forget Marines, all your imagery needs to be captioned, color corrected and ready for submission by 1700 today so we can begin the upload to higher headquarters”, said my Gunnery Sergeant (Gunny) who oversaw the combat photography operations with the Marine battalion that had plunged back into Afghanistan. “Including you, Corporal Tepfenhart” he ordered as I strolled through the tent and set my camera equipment down on some empty ammo cans.
“Gunny, I need to fix my camera and get ready to go before my mission with Weapons Platoon later today” I retorted with a tone of disappointment. I had another convoy departing at 1500 in the afternoon. And I was hoping to get some food, take a nap and spend some time cleaning my gear. A new deadline for my finished imagery was not what I was looking forward to. The Gunnery Sergeant eyed at me in a way that indicated I needed to do what I had just been told. I understood the mission. And, like any good Marine would do, I grabbed an MRE and sat down on an ammo can with my laptop and got to work.
Culling imagery can be such a time-staking task. Especially when you love every shot you take. I was a habitual over-shooter, which didn’t help things either. I remember looking at every frame and debating over every…little…detail. When you’re tired and pressured for a deadline, it is even more difficult. I am sure I made some decisions that were wrong, but I pressed through. Narrowing down what seemed like a million images to the dozen or so that best portrayed the story of what we had been doing for the last several days.
“Hey Corporal, I just finished my project Gunny had me working on”, announced the Lance Corporal who also worked in the combat camera shop with me. “He said you might need some help with your image editing.”
He was a talented young digital artist, but I wasn’t comfortable letting him near the work that I had done. I thought it would take too long to show him how I wanted it done. And I wasn’t comfortable letting someone else work on my images. So I sent him on his way and started launching my images into Photoshop. I would do all my color corrections, cropping and digital darkroom work in Photoshop. I had a very specific look and feel I liked to be able to achieve that I felt was synonymous with my imagery. I liked things a little cooler than most. And of course, I had to clean up all the dust spots that were inevitably noticeable in my images. I was so excited about the work that I was doing, and my imagery came out looking great. And even better, I was looking like I was on track to hit the deadline. With my momentum growing, I launched my caption writing software and began writing about my mission and the instances that I captured over the last few days.
“Gunny, I just loaded those images onto the drive so they can be sent out”, I said boastfully. “I am going to head over to catch up with Weapons Platoon. We’re supposed to be leaving in a few minutes to go out to Nawzad on a resupply.”
“Hold on, warrior. Let me see that camera” said the Gunnery Sergeant as he held his hand out. I handed him my Canon Mark II in a moment of confusion. He looked at it. He studied it.
Inspecting the top of my camera with wide eyes, he rubbed his fingers over the shutter release as though it was a winning lottery numbers in braille. After a minute of silence, where I stared at him as he gazed at my camera, he shouted over to one of the other Marines. “Lance Corporal, grab your go bag and take my camera and meet up with Weapons Platoon for embarkation.” The Lance Corporal did exactly that. The Gunny shifted his attention back to me. “Corporal, stage your gear and grab your cleaning equipment.”
That was in the autumn of 2008, but it has been one of the most valuable lessons in my career. My time and talent is best spent when I can be out there… out photographing. I missed out on a huge opportunity because I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I had a perfectly talented and capable man willing to help me. And I declined it because I wanted a level of control that, at the end of the day, had little to no bearing on how the story was told.
The lessons I learned that day is why I loved my time in H&H’s Order Entry Services. That is why the studios that I was privileged to work with are able to prosper, profit and grow. Because they understand where their time is best spent. The single person operation is able to sell and photograph. The larger operation is able to staff more appropriately and manage their overhead in a way that makes sense. I managed H&H’s Order Entry Services team, which is a service that allows the volume photographer to book the business and photograph. Then hand it over to the H&H team and they will take care of the rest. This is one of the many time-saving workflow solutions H&H has to help studios focus on doing what they do the best.
What opportunities have you missed because you’re behind your computer and not out in the action?
P.S. clean your camera.