An Interview with Photographer & Author Sean McCormack

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Portrait by Sean McCormack

Sean McCormack is a professional photographer based in Galway, Ireland. He shoots a range of subjects including landscapes, commercial and editorial fashion, headshots and bands. He’s also the author of Essential Development, the latest Craft & Vision ebook.

Sean’s career is an interesting case study. He’s not a full-time pro, and photography (and writing) are just part of his business activity. This is called ‘portfolio working’ (a term coined by Charles Handy) and a viable way of building a career in photography.

Interview

Essential Development by Sean McCormack

How would you describe your creative vision – what themes are you trying to explore in your work?

I have a split personality in some ways with my photography. I shoot landscapes and people. For both the key is creating a connection between the photo and the viewer. For landscapes it’s the composition that creates it. Sometimes a few feet left or right can make a huge difference. With people, it’s about the eyes. The mouth can be telling one story, but the eyes tell the truth.

As to exploring, in landscapes it’s a mixing of drawing new looks from familiar places. I’m really near Connemara, which is a beautiful place to shoot and explore. There are loads of little side roads that take you new places that have a familiar background. I’m also trying to travel further for more unusual looks. I went with two friends to Iceland during the summer. It was truly amazing, we’ll definitely be going back.

For my work with people, and especially fashion and nude, I’m going away from the shooting models against walls and looking to create more story based work. I’m awaiting publication on a few shoots, which will make it clearer when I (finally) update my website.

Who are your three favourite photographers and why do you like them?

Tough question. My favourite modern landscape photographer is probably Patrick Di Fruscia. His work and composition remind me of my own, but also of where I’d like to be in that work.

For fashion, it’s Steven Meisel. He’s shot every Vogue Italia cover, and has such breadth and range in his work it’s hard not to be influenced by him.

Picking a number three means excluding all the others that I rest on. Do I go for Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Edward Weston or Herb Ritts? Or even modern photographers like Hudson Manilla, Russell James, Annie Leibovitz, Platon or Rankin?

Actually I can’t choose. I firmly believe in the value of knowing the history of photography and building on the shoulders of giants. I may never reach those heights, but I will take influence from them. I buy loads of books of photography. A printed copy beats looking at a screen any day.

Essential Development by Sean McCormack

When did you start taking photos? What made you decide to explore photography as a means of artistic expression?

I’ve always had an interest in photography, but it was really traveling with bands that made me get out my camera to document. When I started college studying engineering, I was already out mixing sound (I still am), so it made sense that I would record the visual as well as the aural.

The process of shooting was enjoyable, and became an end in itself. Does there need to be more at the start? Shooting has put me in great situations that would never have happened without it. Even if I never made money from it, I would continue to shoot because I enjoy it so much. Albeit with ever aging gear!

Can you explain in a few words how you earn a living as a photographer? How did you make the transition from hobbyist to professional photographer?

I’ve a number of revenue streams, and they change as time goes by. In studio I do a lot of headshots, fashion portfolios, lookbooks, bands and product photography. On top of that I’ve created a few plugins for Lightroom. I could potentially do without a studio and rent one when I need, but I did that for a while a few years ago and the frustration of shooting from home drove me mad! I am expanding to sell more portrait work and establishing additional packages. I also intend doing more travel and looking into other markets.

As for the transition, I don’t think I’ll ever make the step into being a full time professional. Like I’ve mentioned I still do sound. I enjoy music and mixing bands, both from a musical and social viewpoint. Despite that I do make money from my photography and it was a matter of deciding to charge for my work and then building up more clients.

A lot of people find it hard to charge for their work. Doing a lot of free work makes it hard to charge those same people in the future, and a lot of people doing a lot of free (and mostly likely excellent) work devalues photography to the point of commodity versus being works of art.

I’m not saying you should never work for free. Personal work forms the foundation that attracts the clients you want to shoot. If you want to get paid for a certain type of work, you have to show you can do it. If you want to get away from a type of work, take it off your website. And remember to charge for it.

Essential Development ebook cover

Essential Development

Why do you use Lightroom 4 to process your photos rather than alternative software? What are the advantages?

I like how the Lightroom 4 workflow goes. It makes managing and developing images easy. I can do 90% of the work I need to do with a photo in Lightroom, and it’s only when I need to do specific pixel manipulation that I need to go to Photoshop. Obviously price is now a big advantage with Lightroom, but the fact that you can access all your photos in one go is the major plus.

Can you outline three core Lightroom skills required to get the most out of the software?

Follow the workflow. Do the image management and selects first, then go to Develop with them.

Batch Process. Make use of Lightroom’s batch process controls: Presets, Sync, Copy & Paste. Even Previous when going from image to image speeds your workflow.

Output. Manage your output with tools like Publish Services, which gives you a visual record of what photos have gone where.

Essential Development by Sean McCormack

It seems to me that the latest advances in Lightroom render the purchase of Photoshop CS (an expensive buy for most hobbyists) unnecessary. What software would you recommend for photographers on a budget that use Lightroom in their workflow?

For all it’s beauty and efficiency, Lightroom doesn’t play with pixels, so when you need to warp, composite or swap pixels around, you need a pixel based editor. Gimp is a free one, but a little clunky, but is best for the freebie hunters. Pixelmator on Mac is a really well featured editor. Photoshop Elements has really come on in the last few versions and is great value for hobbyists.

Do you have any favourite Lightroom plug-ins? Which plug-ins would you recommend for our readers?

Truthfully one of my favourites is one of my own – LRB Portfolio. It makes entires websites from the Web Module. I do have others that do this, but I wrote this one first, so it holds a special place in my heart.

Client Response Gallery from The Turning Gate is a great plugin for creating client selection galleries. I use this a lot for my shoots to get stuff online for clients when we can find a suitable time for viewings. You sell less via online viewings, so I prefer to do them in the studio when I can. When I can’t this is the one.

Finally, I really like onOne Softwares Perfect Photo Suite. I’m currently looking at version 7, with loads of changes from 6, which was already a great step up from 5. They’ve dropped the price and increased the amount of stuff you can do. Always a plus. I especially like Perfect Effects, for getting a look quickly. I use it as a finish for my composites.

Essential Development by Sean McCormack

Where did the idea for the ebook Essential Development come from? Talk us through the process you went through – from gestation to publication.

Sounds like a ‘Craft & Vision’ primer question! In truth I’d been talking about writing on Twitter and David duChemin messaged me, so we started talking about books and it went from there. I’ve already had a book published for Lightroom 2 (Photoshop Lightroom 2 Made Easy), so was familiar with the process. We decided on a theme, and I wrote an outline based on that. With the writing process, I refined it a little more, and then got stuck into writing. Having a deadline is something I absolutely need. Otherwise I meander around going nowhere!

With all the text and screen captures done, we decided to add a preset pack. We’d already talked about it, so I went through the book and pulled ideas for presets from each sections to create them, as well as adding other ones from my work around the time.

I sent these off too. After a while an edit preview came through, and I made changes based on this. Not long after than the layout preview came through. Some of the wording didn’t quite fit the layout, so I asked for changes on that. Next thing I knew I was getting emails from other authors and affiliates saying congrats! Each section of the process is faster than the one before, so it seems slow at the beginning and manic at the end. I was also away on a speaking tour at the end of the process, so that made it even tighter. It’s almost the same with print, except that after the layout edit, you have to wait six months for the printed book.

What are the key lessons you learnt from the process of writing the ebook? What advice would you give someone who would like to write something similar?

Easy, set a deadline, write and outline and stick to it, unless it becomes obvious that you need to change it. Even if you’re not writing for a company like Craft & Vision, you need someone else to edit it, and someone else to do layout. If there’s a good chance of selling, it’s really worth paying experienced people to do this. Your book will look and come over much better.

Essential Development by Sean McCormack

Any more ebooks or books planned for the future? If so, can you drop a hint at this stage to the topic?

I’ve probably three or four books already half written, but with no deadline, so you can probably guess what’s happening with them. Ideas in the pipeline are a Lightroom workflow book and a lighting book. I’ve been doing studio lighting for nearly 10 years now, so I’ve been through the mill from speedlites right through to location lighting, to 10 light setups.

I think getting the knowledge I’ve learned on paper (or epaper in this case) would be a good thing. I’m just back from a residential training week in Buxton in the UK, where three of the four classes I gave were in lighting and I had more 1:1’s in lighting than Lightroom.

Essential Development by Sean McCormack

Links

You can learn more about Sean at his websites seanmcfoto.com and skywaterland.com.

Sean’s ebook Essential Development is available from Craft & Vision.

Gallery

Here are some more spreads from Essential Development:

Essential Development by Sean McCormack

Essential Development by Sean McCormack

Essential Development by Sean McCormack

Essential Development by Sean McCormack

Essential Development by Sean McCormack

Essential Development by Sean McCormack

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