Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Ranger Finder Magazine

Link to a downloadable PDF in Rangefinder: Rangefinder

Zave Smith: Nurturing a Passion for Photography

By Michelle Perkins

Zave Smith, a commercial photographer based in Philadelphia, PA, has been in the
business for over twenty years—long enough to see a variety of stylistic revolutions,
countless changes in the market, and incredible advances in technology. What has
remained constant, however, is the importance of creativity and personal vision in his
long-term success as a photographer. Without this, says Zave, you’re always chasing the
latest fashion—and always lagging behind. “It’s like playing pin the tail on the donkey,”
he laughs, “but not only are you blindfolded, the donkey is also moving.”

Even on a good day, staying your own course in a world of opinionated clients,
viewers, and peers can be a challenge. For people who make their careers in photography,
the situation is significantly exacerbated by the need to remain fresh and innovative over
the course of several decades. “For those of us who have walked life’s road a bit and built
our professional identity on earlier successes, we have a vested interested in keeping our
reputation,” says Zave. “The crowds yell out to us—sing ‘Satisfaction’ again. How do we
stop each creative answer from being in the same key? Bank accounts, credit cards, kids
in school, and a reputation to keep intact. How do we stop thinking about the soles of our
shoes?” Zave has a few answers.


How do some artists remain as innovative and creative at sixty as they were at twenty?
They do it by not being afraid. “Fear is the emotion that stops us in our tracks,” says
Zave. “Fear freezes the mind and builds walls around the soul. The bumps and scars of a
creative life teach us to be careful, but being careful is the death of creativity.”


Controlling your mind can be difficult, especially when it comes to conquering those
knee-jerk fear reactions. Controlling your environment, says Zave, is actually much
easier. “Nothing influences me like the people who surround me,” he says. “Positive,
energized, and giving people fill my inner circle. Whiners, braggers, and the selfish are
kept at bay. On the set, I want to free my mind to focus on what is in front of my camera
and not worry about what is happening behind it. One in a while, during a shoot I look
around and the number of people behind me startles me. I have forgotten that they are
there. I can do this because I know that they are paying attention to their areas of
responsibility, freeing me to concentrate on mine.”
Zave has also learned to streamline his studio environment so that areas not
directly involved in picture making take up less of his time. This helps him avoid
spending undue amounts of time on minutiae.


Potentially creative moments arise all the time, not just during sessions—but if you’re
holding the television remote instead of your camera, chances are you’ll miss them.
“One of the pleasures of being a photographer is that our creative life is not client
dependent,” says Zave. “For example, my shooting schedule does not vary that greatly
between the times when the studio is busy with clients and those times in between. I am
constantly shooting and exploring my visual world.”


“I am a big believer in the power of the trashcan,” says Zave. “Even good ideas, if they
are not working toward my current goals, need to be put aside.” If something is not
working, Zave suggests getting up and walking away from the problem at hand. This can
free you to seek out the answers by using a different approach, getting past the one that
has you stuck. “The pressure to make the day’s numbers can give a lot of energy to a set,
but I believe that this numbers game can lead to making pictures that show instead of say
something,” he says. “Chasing numbers forces us to see with our head instead of our


“For me, inspiration can come from a model. I will meet someone at a casting and find
their look, and more importantly their personality, captivating,” says Zave. “I will then
develop shooting scripts around what intrigues me about them. The script ideas often
come from my day-to-day life. I then set the scene and let the talent act it out. It is during
this acting that I seem to catch the spark of life.”
Zave has another handy tip for catching this spark: he has his subjects “play the
scene” from several different points of view. “If I am after a romantic couple, I will also
have the couple act as if they are angry, mad, contemplative, or bored. By swinging back
and forth through different emotions, they will often reach a truer sense of their feelings.
Most of our emotions have many shades, many sides—they are complicated. Powerful
photography has that sense of the complicated nature of our emotional lives.”


It’s the nature of the photography business: there are busy times and slow times. While
the busy times provide a clear sense purpose, the slow times can be breeding grounds for
self doubt—a real creativity crusher. “These are the times when you recall the parental
voices echoing something about going to medical school like your cousin,” says Zave.
What’s important to remember, he notes, is that we get to choose which games we
will play. “Instead of listening to all those dark tapes in the back of your mind, ask ‘What
if?’” he says. “What if I called on a company I never talked to before? What if I offered
different services to my present client base?”
Zave pursues other creativity-affirming options, as well. “One of my favorite
activities is to take elements from a recent assignment and re-explore them to see what
other visual possibilities might be there,” he says.
“I have found that each of my slow periods has forced me to re-examine what I do
and how I do it,” he adds. “Each slow period has enabled me to grow and reach to the
next level of my career. Sounds strange, but I would not be as successful as I am if I had
always been busy. These times of unrestricted, undefined exploration are sometimes just
the thing we need to recharge our creative juices.”


Photographers often strive to be “perfect,” but Zave says that finding your passion is
much more important than complex lighting or flawless posing. “It wasn’t until I gave
myself permission to let my personal passions enter my professional work that my career
truly blossomed,” he says. On a shoot, Zave notes that it’s easy to get so focused on what
the client is saying that you lose sight of why you were hired in the first place: for what
your visual sense can bring to the expression of their concept. “My most successful
shoots,” he says, “are those where I listen to myself as much as to the client. A true

To see more of Zave Smith’s images, and to check out his blog (which is full of
inspiring reflections on photography), visit

Michelle Perkins is a professional writer, photographer, and digital-imaging specialist. She
has written for PC Photo and is the author of numerous books, including Professional
Portrait Lighting: Techniques and Images from Master Photographers (Amherst Media, 2006)
and Professional Portrait Posing: Techniques and Images from Master Photographers (Amherst
Media, 2007).

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