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Interview: NAPP Founder and Photographer Scott Kelby on Photoshop, HDR, and Distinguishing Yourself

by Sophia Betz on August 30, 2010 · 16 comments

Tomorrow, the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP) kicks off their biannual Photoshop World conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. I was thrilled to get a chance this week to chat with Scott Kelby — photographer, teacher, Photoshop pro and founder of NAPP. In this interview, he discusses not only how he manages all his different interests and responsibilities, but also delves into HDR photography, DSLR filmmaking, Photoshop and Lightroom strategies, and what it takes to succeed as a photographer today. I also got some great tips on tackling the wealth of information and excitement Photoshop World has to offer.

Sophia Betz: I want to start out with a little bit of background on how you started NAPP, how you founded the business, and kind of where the idea came from.

Scott Kelby: Well, we originally started doing one-day Photoshop seminars in 1993. And we would go to a town, and I would finish the seminar — at that time I taught them all myself; now we have other people teaching along with me, Matt Kloskowski, Dave Cross, Joe McNally, Bert Monroy, all these other people. But back then, it was just me.  So we would come to town, and at the end of the day people would come up to me and go, “Man, this is awesome. We had a great day today. Where do we go to learn more about Photoshop?”… But there really was no central place you could go to learn about Photoshop. So we went to Adobe with the idea of starting a national association of Photoshop professionals. And of course since we’re using the word ‘Photoshop’ we needed their blessing and their support — not financial support, we didn’t ask for that, but we needed their “OK you guys can do your thing.” We laid out our plans, we had everything pretty well, fully developed to launch this magazine, Photoshop User, along with it and all, and they were totally cool with it… And that all worked out better than expected [laughs]. That was about 11 years ago that we launched NAPP — it grew out of our one-day seminars… so people would have a central resource to go to for learning about Photoshop all year long, not just the one day we came to town.

©Scott Kelby

SB: In your work these days, are you more focused on going out and shooting when you’re not doing the seminar circuit, or do you focus more in post — in Photoshop and Lightroom and such?

SK: That’s an interesting question. I have a full-time photography assistant. He’s right outside my door, I can look in his office from where I’m at, but, unfortunately photography is such a tiny, tiny part of my job. In fact, it’s something I don’t have nearly as much time to do as I want. But, picture this — I just wrote a Lightroom book and I just wrote a Photoshop CS5 book for digital photographers. Well, I try to use all my own photography in the book, which means I have to have 1,000 pages of photos where none of them duplicate. So I can’t have any photos in the Lightroom book that were in the Photoshop book and vice versa because a lot of people buy both. So that’s really challenging, and the only way to fill 1,000 pages of photos is to make sure you keep shooting. I have to take all these photos to be able to fix them in Lightroom and Photoshop. So that by itself has its own set of challenges, which keeps you constantly shooting. I do travel a lot. I take vacations with my family as much as I can. I’ll have taken almost seven weeks this year. I love travel photography.

Right next to my assistant Brad’s office is a fully equipped studio. And so it’s very tempting to just pick up the phone and go, “Hey, let’s do a product shoot today, or let’s do a portrait shoot today, let’s shoot one of my guitars, let’s shoot whatever.” It’s my hobby… I like doing sports and sports portraits, so this year I’m really trying to shoot a lot of that… Photoshop World ends on Friday and Saturday night I’m in Atlanta shooting the kickoff of the college football season. It’s ESPN College Day in Atlanta and I’m shooting North Carolina versus the LSU Tigers, two top-ranked teams. I’ve been really gearing up this year, trying to shoot a lot more football. Last year, I did shoot a number of NFL and college games. I shot the Rams last year, I shot the Chicago Bears a number of times, I shot a bunch of college, I shot a bowl game, and I actually signed with a wire service. So now I actually shoot for a sports wire service and that helps me get access to games I normally couldn’t get access to. Getting access to any of these games requires either a hookup or you have to be with an approved media outlet. So that’s the photography part of it. But, again, all of that turns into post-production and workflows and everything else, so it all kind of goes hand in hand. It’s lucky that my hobby works into my job, but I think Photoshop is kind of my hobby too. I have two hobbies for a job so I never complain.

SB: I’ve always found sports photography to be one of the most challenging kinds of photography.

SK: It’s physically challenging, let me tell you. The worst one in the world is golf. I spent a day at a tournament and I was following around Tiger Woods before he got in trouble and people liked him. I was trying to stay in front of Tiger, he walks really, really fast, so you get down on your knees and you get ready to shoot. Now, you’re not allowed to fire during his backswing. You’re not allowed to fire during any golfer’s backswing — they’ll throw you out, they’ll literally throw you off the course. So as soon as he hits the ball, you’re allowed to fire. So you take some shots, and then he looks down field and he takes off. And he walks really really fast and he doesn’t have anything in his hands. He’s got a caddy carrying a bag, and they’re zipping down the field, and you’ve got all this photography gear on. I’m wearing a ThinkTank belt, I’ve got huge lenses and monopods, and second cameras and all this stuff.

©Scott Kelby

SB: How often do you go on the seminar tours?

SK: I still go out I’d say maybe 10 times a year… I feel like I need to be out there because the only way you can find out what people want to learn next is to talk to people. You can’t do it from your office. And in between breaks I answer questions, and I start to see patterns of what people are getting stuck with. You’ll hear the same question asked by different people every break by, and you realize — OK, this is something people are struggling with and you try to adjust what you’re going to teach to match what they’re asking… I love doing live seminars. I absolutely love it. You get such a rush out of seeing the lightbulb come on for other people and showing them a shortcut or showing them some technique that makes their life easier. You’re like, “Yay! I did my job.”… We try to use plain English because that’s how I’d want someone to tell me. I wouldn’t want someone to tell me all the technical stuff. I can look that up in a reference book or online. If you just show me what to do, I can do it. Just show me like you would a friend, so I try to do that in my training.

SB: What do you find are a couple of the main things people are asking about recently?

SK: For Lightroom, people are really stuck with managing their catalogs. And the weird thing about it is it’s so incredibly simple. I think why people are stuck on it is they think there’s more to it than there is. Matt Kloskowski and I talk about this quite a bit because we both teach the Lightroom tour. And people will write on their evaluations, “We wanted more about catalog management.” And you’re like, “Open your catalog, put all your photos in it. Or you can add a second catalog where you put other photos in…” There really isn’t even catalog management. I don’t know if that word should even exist… Ideally, I keep everything in one catalog. The problem is, when you get so many photos, you get 50,000 photos, in some cases, Lightroom goes slower.

In Photoshop, it’s a different struggle. And what’s weird about it is the people that are struggling in Photoshop — all their problems would be answered by switching to Lightroom. Their problem is with managing their photos and working with the Bridge and so on. And all the things they want to do, I’m like, just switch to Lightroom. Workflow problems? That’s because you’re using three programs. You’re using Camera Raw, you’re using the Bridge, and you’re using Photoshop. You’re using three programs per photo. If you used Lightroom, you’ll probably get 80% of your work done using one program. And you’ll occasionally go to a second program. But that’s it…It opens up 33% of your brain.

©Scott Kelby

SB: What do you find is interesting to talk to photographers about these days in terms of new technologies that didn’t exist even three or five years ago?

SK: HDR. There’s no lack of wanting to talk about HDR; it’s kind of a controversial subject. So it has its own set of debate. That’s one that’s interesting to talk to photographers about. It’s interesting to talk to photographers about copyright issues; it’s kind of passed from person to person. And then, the other one I think, technology-wise, is plugins. Plugins go through kind of a roller coaster of being really really popular and then you don’t hear about them for a while. But right now, the plugins that are out there that are doing stuff for Photoshop and Lighroom are just unbelievable. And I actually think at this point, I use more plugins than I ever have in my life. I used to be like a real purist, like, I’ve got to do everything from scratch. And I’m like, why? So there are some plugins that I use today. One I probably use the most is Nik Color Efex Pro. It’s just great for toning everything from portraits to landscape images; I just absolutely love it. The second one is also by Nik – the Silver Efex Pro. And that’s what I use to do my black and whites now. And I know all kinds of ways to do black and whites in Photoshop. But honestly, I just love it. It’s better, easier, it’s really good.

SB: Does NAPP address Photoshop as used for things outside of photography – art with Photoshop, etc?

SK: Oh, yes. Some people see us as a very photography-centric organization, and some people who’ve known us longer think we’re more graphics-related. If you look at Photoshop User magazine, you’ll see a lot of things we do – using Photoshop with Illustrator and a lot of graphic design type of stuff. And we have people like Corey Barker who works for us full time – he’s one of our gurus. He’s a graphic designer; he doesn’t ever do any photo stuff… In fact, he’s out doing our Down and Dirty Tricks tour this week.

©Scott Kelby

SB: What tips do you have for photographers branching out into video?

SK: What’s weird is – the people that are really, really psyched about DSLR video are not photographers. It’s video professionals; video professionals lose their minds over DSLR video. Now here’s why; I had it explained to me by the head of our video operations. He said, why video people are so crazy about it is – to get the look of a film camera, what you see in movies, it would cost you like $20,000 dollars. You have to start with a $5,000 camera, a special mount, and then you have to have actual film camera lenses, and the cost is prohibitive. All of a sudden, you have cameras that are $900 that look like a movie. When we shoot video with DSLR, it looks different, it looks like film because you have that deep focusing and that really shallow depth of field…It took what was a $25,000 proposition down to an $800 proposition. So those guys lose their minds. So now think of photographers. Most of the photographers I talk to – not all – would rather use a regular video camera. They’re smaller, they’re lighter, they have built-in autofocus. They know how to use them; they’re comfortable with them, it all makes sense. You go to a DSLR – it doesn’t have autofocus, you have to do all the manual focusing, it’s not as comfortable as a video camera.

This is the big kicker – I started doing some research and asking photographers, why aren’t you using DSLR video? And they were giving me these same kinds of reactions, but their big thing was this: they don’t know how to edit video. They don’t want to learn Premiere Pro, they don’t want to learn Final Cut Pro. They’re like busy as anything and they don’t want to learn a program more complicated than Photoshop. So I started asking, what do you do with your DSLR video? You know what their answer is: it’s sitting as individual clips on their computer. It sounds weird, but that’s kind of where we’re at… One day, somebody will come out with a program that’s super simple and photographers will start building slideshows that have both video and stills together. I’ve seen photographers that will do it, but it’s just not at that stage where it’s easy. It’s still a complex proposition.

SB: When you’re out talking to photographers or taking photos, how do you define success in an image?

SK: This is your photo so you’re the judge and jury. I define success as a photo that I like three weeks later after I took it. Sometimes I come back from a shoot and I’m really happy and I’m really excited about the shoot and then I see the shots two or three weeks later and I’m like, these aren’t that good… Shots that I like later are the ones I feel are really successful.

SB: For first-timers to Photoshop World like myself, what advice would you give?

SK: A couple of things. You got to be at the keynote. The keynote sets the stage for the whole thing. It really lets you know that you’re not just there to learn, you’re there for fun. Number two: don’t be afraid to switch classes if you wind up in the wrong class… If you go in there and sit in the class and you realize that either a) this class is over my head, b) I already know this stuff, or c) this just isn’t what I thought it was going to be, get up and go to a different class… The other thing, and this is a big thing: one of the coolest things you will see about Photoshop World is there is a vibe and a buzz that everyone will tell you about. It really is a feeling of we’re all in this together, we all have something in common. Photoshop World is the best place to make Photoshop friends. And everybody needs Photoshop friends; you need someone you can call up and ask questions and get their feedback and vice versa. What I would recommend, anytime you’re just standing in line, waiting for something, just walking down the hallway beside somebody, just say, so what do you use Photoshop for? And you instantly have a conversation going… The social aspect is really, really important – some people miss it, some people really embrace it.

One other thing – if they’re a photographer, they need to go to the Art of Digital Photography. It’s a panel session at night, after hours, and they don’t talk about Photoshop… I’m usually on my way to Midnight Madness when that class comes out, and people are stopping me in the hallway going, I just can’t believe what I saw.

SB: Do you have any other advice for up-and-coming photographers?

SK: I get this question a lot. “Mr. Kelby, I want to be a photographer.” Here’s the thing. If I was out there trying to make it as a photographer, I’d pick a specialty. I would pick one thing, get really, really good at it, and develop a look, where you could look at that photo and go, Scott Kelby took that. Right now I see a lot of photographers who shoot everything well. If you were to go to an agent and say, help me find work, the agent’s going to go, “You have good stuff, but I’ve got a million competent photographers.” Clients want a particular look… You have to come up with some kind of a trademark look, something that other people who don’t know you personally would go, “Oh, that’s a Joe McNally, that’s a Joey L.” You can look at the photographs and almost see their name on it… They shoot a particular lighting setup, they shoot a particular lighting, and they always do the same post-processing. Those are the most successful photographers because it’s very easy to say, I want that look for my campaign, I want that look for the cover of my magazine… You have to come up with a signature look. What that means is, you have to come up with whatever you like and get really really good at it. Since the playing field is kind of leveled with these incredible cameras that take great images set in auto mode, you’d better do something to stand out from the crowd.

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Check out Scott Kelby’s site, Twitter feed, and Photoshop World 2010. Click here for more information on joining NAPP. And stay tuned for our continuing coverage of Photoshop World all week!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Scott Koegler August 31, 2010 at 7:06 pm

Great work Sophia!

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