This review originally appeared on The Photo Brigade.
In August of 2012, Atlanta-based commercial/editorial photographer Zack Arias embarked on a mission-- to save us all from really bad advice. Zack launched his popular Tumblr blog, "Photography Q&A - Ask Me Anything About Photography" with the lofty goal of answering 1,000 reader-submitted questions. Honestly, I'm not sure which feat is more impressive-- the fact the he met the challenge, or that he managed to do it in just under four months. For those of you keeping score at home, that's answering about 60 questions per week. It was this collection of questions-- ranging from gear, lighting, and confidence, to portfolio-building, submitting your work, and selling yourself-- that became the rough-draft for Zack's first book, Photography Q&A - Real Questions. Real Answers.
PQ&A takes 106 of those questions and expands on them, taking the reader on both a practical and philosophical trek from, "Hey, I have this new camera, maybe I can make some money with it on the weekends," to, "It's been 90 days and the magazine still hasn't paid me, what do I do?" One of the things I love about this book is that you don't have to read it in order. While I suppose it does follow a loose chronology, it also reinforces how so much of HOW we do things is intertwined with WHY we do them. A seemingly straightforward gear question (what lens/camera/lights should I buy?) easily dovetails into a business discussion (budgets), morphs into a creative debate (35mm vs. 85mm), and finishes off with how all of it impacts the #1 priority-- taking care of your family. The only minor drawback to this format is that it makes going back to find specific quotes a little difficult, so if you feel inspired, take note of where it struck.
Zack, never shy about sharing not only the highs, but also the lows of what got him where he is today, essentially joins with his audience, using a question of his own as the basis for the Forward. In it, Zack asks Rolling Stone magazine Senior Photo Editor Sacha Lecca what he looks for in new photographers. Really? Here is a guy who could have asked just about any "acclaimed" photographer out there to write the Forward. Instead, he asked someone he's never even worked for and the rest of us have likely never heard of. While some might see using his own question as a bit of a literary contrivance, I look at it as adding credibility to the premise. While a lot of the advice out there comes from photographers enjoying a level of success many will never achieve, Zack pretty much stakes a claim to a piece of our own real estate. In the Introduction, he says, "As I answer these questions, I'm doing so from the perspective of dealing with current issues in my own life, or I'm speaking to myself in the past. I'm saying things I wish I would have known 'back then.'"
By the third question you realize this book is going to cover topics as wide-ranging as the photographers who submitted them. With emotional questions (Do you ever feel like a farce or a phony?), skill questions (What drills will really drive home exposure so well that it's like breathing?), and gear questions (Which soft box should I buy-- the 28" or the 50"?), somewhere in this book's 293 pages you're going to find something that resonates with you. As he says in the introduction, "I promise there is at least one sentence in this book that is going to impact your life as a photographer."
This book cuts to the chase. It breaks through the noise and distills away the bullshit, giving honest answers to real questions. It might not be the answer the person submitting it was hoping for, but it's an answer designed to make them a better photographer and you have to respect that. After all, if you took the time to ask whether it's ok to include a collection of nudes in the same web gallery as bar mitzvah photos and family portraits, chances are you already knew the answer.
Interspersed throughout the book are ten "Visual Intermissions," where readers get an inside look into photo shoots-- both personal and professional-- which illustrate many of the book's lessons. While they are obviously Zack's shoots, their messages are universal. Finding those benchmark moments in your career. The importance of photographing the people you love. The photograph that changed everything. Working with what you've got. Personal projects. Chasing the light and not the gear.
Speaking of the gear, fret not, you GAS-afflicted shooters (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). There's a good bit of gear porn in these pages as well. You'll find a complete breakdown of everything that goes on the cart for practically every shoot, as well as how to pack it for travel. Tips on the optimal working distance for a soft box? Check. Packing for street vs. packing for portraits? Yeah, that's here, too.
Shortly before the book's release, Zack took a little time out to offer some A's to a few of my Q's.
JG: People have been interested in what you have to say for a long time. What made you decide that now was the right time for a book?
ZA: I wasn't planning on writing a book even though I've had a number of offers to do so. The idea for this coming together as a book happened around question 700. I sat back and thought, "I think I just wrote a book." Writing a book about photography and getting it published has always been a thing I thought would be cool. I didn't know how or when that would happen for me though. I'm glad it came together in an organic process.
JG: In essence, you joined your readers' cause by turning one of your own questions into the Forward. How did getting Sacha Lecca (Senior Photo Editor at Rolling Stone magazine)on board fall into place?
ZA: I met Sacha at a portfolio review a few years ago and have kept in touch with him. He's a great guy and has always given me solid feedback on my work. I noticed his name pop up on my Tumblr blog one day when he liked one of my posts. I was honored. As we were editing this book the subject of having a foreword written came up. We bounced a number of names around of who I might like to write one. Then my wife, Meghan, and I thought of Sacha. It was perfect. I don't want to position myself as someone at the top of the game because I'm not. I wanted to start the book with me asking a question. I emailed Sacha about it and he was on board with it from the start.
JG: You're nervous about this release. Is that because this is virgin territory for you, or are you nervous whenever you put any new work "out there"?
ZA: Yes and yes. I don't want to put mediocre noise out into the world. I also didn't want this to just be a straight blog-to-book kind of thing. I wanted to make something that was different than other books on the shelves and this is all new territory for me. I hope it is received well. I also get nervous with everything I do. From photos to videos to workshops to this kind of thing.
JG: It seems that a lot of the questions have to do with confidence-- finding it...losing it...holding onto it. Was that how it played out in the actual submissions, or is that the direction that the editing took when it came time to compile the questions?
ZA: Most of the questions I deal with concern pricing and marketing, technical and gear, and inspiration and confidence. Pricing and technical things are sort of nuts and bolts topics. Inspiration and confidence hang out in the ether and are harder to nail down and those are, sometimes, things I like to talk about more because I'm trying to figure it out as well. I started the book there, peppered it through the rest, and ended it there.
JG: This is not the typical checklist photography book. While you offer specifics in some areas (what every pro's marketing kit should contain, for example), would you agree that in many ways this book is more philosophical-- about people getting their heads and priorities in the right places?
ZA: Photography is as much technical as it is emotional. Many questions that people start with in their photographic life are about the technical. I want to help people there but then get them to think about the more philosophical aspects. Here's how... now I want you to think about why.
JG: Was it important to NOT write a typical nuts & bolts book? Some people might have been pretty stoked about a "How to Shoot Like Zack Arias" book.
ZA: There are TONS of nuts and bolts books. Tons of them. I'm not against writing one, but you have to ask "why" questions as much as "how." I've been asked to write a lighting book several times. One day I might do that but there are a lot of lighting books out there. Good ones. Bad ones. Ok ones. Lots of books on lighting. If I'm going to do a lighting book then I need to take some sort of new angle to it. I haven't figured that one out yet.
I look at those kind of books being tiles or bricks in your career. This Q&A book is more like the grout between the tiles. It connects a lot of little things together. It's the stuff that might get missed. The information in this book is the stuff I've learned that is the glue that holds all the other stuff together.
JG: In the introduction you say, "If there is a mountain top, then I just recently made it to the base camp." Whose brain do you pick when you're the one asking the questions?
ZA: I'm fortunate enough to attend a number of industry events throughout the year. When I'm there I typically corner a few folks and pick their brains about photography. Joe McNally and Greg Heisler are two of my go to folks when I have questions. Those two are well on up the mountain.
JG: Some of this stuff seems like it should have been a no-brainer (like not putting nudes-- fetish or otherwise-- in the same gallery as family portraits). Was there ever a question that had you saying, "that's ridiculous-- I'm not answering that"?
ZA: Not really, but there are a lot of questions people ask me that I can't answer because they haven't provided enough information. Things like, "How do I get started in photography?" Well, what are you trying to do? Weddings? Commercial? Editorial? Fashion? Is this a hobby or a career path? Where are you located? Are you green as grass right now or do you have some experience? Is this full time or part time? When someone says "I've been messing around with a camera for two years and I'm thinking about shooting weddings part time in the small town where I live. How do I get started?" -- That's a question that I can build an answer on.
JG: What was the most daunting part of this project?
ZA: Editing the work together and putting relevant photos together with the text and doing it on tight deadlines. Once I signed the contract and handed in some sample chapters, the finished book started it's way into the distribution pipe line. You don't write a book, print it, then take it to Amazon. My book was listed on Amazon before the cover art was even approved. As I was getting the book together there were already people marketing it. That's some pressure.
JG: You combined similar questions for the book. Of the original 1,000, how many would you say actually made it into the book in one form or another?
ZA: I pulled about 150 questions from the blog to start editing for the book. Some got cut. Some were combined. I went back into the blog a few times for a few replacements. 106 ended up in the final book. I didn't want the book to be the usual title of "101 Questions Answered" sort of thing. We had no preconceived number of questions from the start. If it was 97 then it was 97. Turned out to be 106.
JG: Who do you think will get the most out of this book?
ZA: Emerging photographers who are either trying to do this full time or are at least thinking of it being a part time endeavor. I'm a working photographer and that's where I speak from. If someone wants to just take better photos at family events or of nature, then this book is not going to help them much. This is more about becoming a photographer and sustaining yourself with a camera. Also note that I shoot portraits for a living so that is where I speak from. I'm not the go-to person for landscapes or still-lifes.
JG: I once heard a musician say that you have a lifetime to produce your first album, but six months for your second. Any plans yet for a follow-up?
ZA: Not as of yet, but this was made with it possibly becoming a series. We'll see. I'm surprised I got this one done. Let's see how it does before I start thinking about the next. Maybe I'll just be a one hit wonder. :)
JG: OFF-THE-RECORD QUESTION... Along with a lot of other people, you thank David Jay in the Acknowledgments. You launched the original Q&A project shortly after he introduced "The System." You (and a lot of other photographers) were very vocal at the time in your criticism. Were you thanking him for the motivation?
ZA: ON the record. Yes. Many folks in the industry flamed DJ for that top 10 site he built. I started my Q&A blog as push-back against the spray and pray mentality that he was espousing. It's interesting to note that around the time I started my Q&A blog he caved to the pressure from so many people in the industry that he brought his photo system site down, saying it was being revised and would be back up "in a few weeks." I've answered 1,200+ questions since then and published a book... and that site has never come back. You can add noise to the industry or signal. Signal always wins. I would have never started the Q&A blog if I hadn't gotten my panties in a wad about that stupid System site, so I have DJ to thank for it. :)
While this book may help improve your photography, I think its greater goal will be improving your quality of life as a photographer-- or at least the quality of your head space. If you're anything like I am-- still grappling with crises of confidence, fighting and clawing through creative and practical ruts, or still occasionally convinced that "my photography/business will skyrocket if I can just buy THAT," then this book is for you.
"Photography Q&A - Real Questions. Real Answers." is available on Amazon.com.