Being self-taught in your profession is one thing. Teaching yourself so well that the industry beats a path to your door and the experts come knocking to upgrade their skills is something else again. That’s the story of Michael Britt.
Michael dropped out of the photography program at the University of Texas in his sophomore year and ‘learned more in two months of assisting than in two years of college.’ After a decade of professional experience, he plunged into digital imaging in the mid-90’s with the feeling that he was so far behind the curve that he’d never catch up.
Michael Britt is now much sought-after as an expert on digital capture and workflow (subjects that mystify most amateurs and can give even hardened professionals the shakes.) He runs a company called Image Mechanics that helps high-end shooters make the transition to digital, and recently authored the manual for Adobe Lightroom—the premier program for managing, adjusting, and presenting large volumes of digital photographs. Michael teaches professional-grade workshops around the country for the APA and PDN.
‘Not having a degree in either photography or computers, it’s kind of funny that I’m teaching this stuff,’ he says. ‘But I’m in discussions with Cypress College (in LA) about designing their digital technology program, and I’ll probably take what I develop for them to other top photography and design schools. I guess I must have some kind of aptitude for digital and for teaching. Who would have known?’
Michael’s aptitude for photography showed up early, along with his independent turn of mind. He was in fourth grade when his mom gave him a Kodak Instamatic, hoping he’d fill photo albums with snapshots of family fun. ‘I guess she wanted me to be the family documentarian, but much to their dismay, I wouldn’t let them in my pictures,’ he recalls. Returning from a vacation to the Carlsbad Caverns with a set of black and white landscapes (sans siblings or parents), Michael staged a photo show for his Royal Rangers Troop and got rave reviews. ‘That was my first taste of getting feedback, and it was fun.’
Since his dad was in the Navy, Michael’s family hop-scotched around the country but photography was a constant in his life. At each new school, he became the go-to guy for yearbook, newspaper and faculty photos. ‘Wherever we went, I pretty much had free run of the school facilities because I gave them what they wanted,’ he says. ‘I didn’t even own a camera when I graduated high school because people had always given me equipment.’
Michael spent the first decade of his professional career shooting publicity stills and movie posters for the film industry in Los Angeles. ‘I actually started doing movie unit work to be with my wife (successful screen and TV actress Cheryl White),’ he says. ‘But we never got to work together, and it can be a very grueling job. Some days, I’d sit on set for about fourteen hours and shoot for maybe two minutes.’
Searching for a new direction, Michael made all the right moves. He plunged into Photoshop and web design, discovering that he was endowed with the digital gene that made it all come easy. Soon he was consulting for photographer friends who had less aptitude for computers. Another crucial step was attending a workshop with celebrated advertising, editorial and portrait photographer Michael Grecco, whose dramatic lighting style he admired. The two Michaels hit it off, and Britt became a digital consultant for Grecco, who needed more than a little help putting his extensive image archives on-line for stock sales.
The problem was workflow, which can be roughly defined as the process of going from the original digital image (or capture) to the final output, while saving as many of the intermediate images as desired in easily accessible archives. Manufacturers had been giving Grecco digital cameras for years, hoping the renowned photographer would take timeless images with their equipment. By the time Britt got involved, Grecco had probably shot with 15 different cameras that used 15 different proprietary digital file formats, some of which weren’t readable by modern computer operating systems.
‘The software that came with most cameras back them wasn’t ready for prime time,’ Michael says. ‘Things kept crashing. It took multiple steps to get from the raw file to the final images. Because it was digital, everyone expected an immediacy that wasn’t really possible. So I started looking at ways to minimize the work, to do as much on front end as possible and limit the number of software pieces involved.’
The better to service Grecco’s online stock business, Michael formed a company, started hiring and training people, buying equipment and picking the brains of camera manufacturers and engineers. ‘I spent all that time trying to tweak the process so I wouldn’t have to stay up all night, so I could have a life, come home to my wife and dog, not be glued to the computer 24×7,’ he says. ‘As a result, we developed a very streamlined process that’s quite different from everybody else. That’s what I teach now.’
One of Michael’s teaching gigs was at the Soup to Nuts workshop, run by the legendary Thomas Knoll, who forever changed the way photographers work by creating Adobe Photoshop. Getting acquainted with Knoll (‘a big, tall, down-to-earth guy who seems like a genuinely nice person’) and other software wizards at Adobe helped Britt redesign his workflow process around Photoshop CS2, the first version of the program really designed to accommodate RAW image files. It also led to the coveted job of authoring the Lightroom manual.
‘They wanted a workflow specialist to create a professional guide on how to take images from capture to delivery and archiving,’ Michael says. ‘My name kept coming up. They called and asked who I knew at Adobe. I said Thomas Knoll, so I guess my credentials were okay. It was great to be part of that process and really sink my teeth into the program.’
When Michael was sure he had a ‘bullet-proof process,’ he launched Image Mechanics to provide digital capture/workflow expertise and equipment to high-end pros. There was plenty of demand, especially from successful advertising photographers who still loved film. ‘Many of our clients weren’t eager to go digital but felt they had to keep up,’ Michael says. ‘We sure they don’t miss a beat in the transition. Whatever they’ve been doing on film, we dial in that look digitally, and that’s what they get. We handle all the technology and become part of their team.’
Image Mechanics has a green philosophy and an arsenal of high-end gear. They show up for jobs rolling carts loaded with 30” monitors and the fastest Mac towers for ‘tethered shooting.’ Previewing everything the camera captures on their monitors, they watch the photographer’s back for focus and exposure and guide them in capturing the best digital file possible. ‘By taking a little time on the front end and using the right tools,’ Michael estimates, ‘we can probably cut two or three hours per day off the time they’d have to spend in post production.’
While pros recognize that smooth workflow is a matter of survival, many amateurs consider it mind-boggling and irrelevant. Michael thinks that everyone interested in better image quality should start shooting RAW because the format allows users much greater latitude for correction and manipulation than the more popular JPEG.
In his workshops for the Digital Photo Academy, Michael begins with the camera, teaching all its operations, settings and menus. Then he delves into workflow and the most convenient techniques for processing RAW images through Lightroom or Aperture.
‘If you’re not shooting RAW,’ he says, ‘you don’t have a negative. You’ve got something like a slide that’s set in stone. You can get lucky. But I try to teach everybody, including amateurs, to use RAW and to process the images in Lightroom or Aperture, both pretty intuitive programs. Lots of amateurs have hundreds if not thousands of hours in Photoshop, so it just makes sense to continue working with your images in Lightroom where the tools are very similar.’
Michael lives with his wife Cheryl and their 80-pound Akita mix (when they’re all home together, which is rare) in ‘a kind of hidden house back on a hillside in Pasadena.’ Michael completely gutted and remodeled the place, doing most of the work himself. He used premium materials like travertine marble counter-tops and chocolate bamboo flooring to create the feel of ‘a mid-century Japanese modern house.’
Michael devoted the same care to designing and building the Image Mechanics rental studio/gallery, where his flair for remodeling, his sense of functional style and his green philosophy create a welcoming environment that appeals to elite photographers and students at DPA seminars alike.
Call Digital Photo Academy at 1 877 372 2231. Lots of people seem to hang up if our welcome recording comes on instead of a live voice, but we promise to return your message within a day or two if you leave one with your name and number. It would be even better if you included your e mail address as well as the date and city of the class you are considering. If leaving a voice mail message is not your thing, please email us at DPAbooking@digitalphotoacademy.com or Richard@digitalphotoacademy.com.