find_photog find_assist join_asmp
BEST OF 2014, David H. Wells
Providence, RI
David H. Wells often stops at L’Artisan Café in Providence, RI, during his afternoon walks. After observing the daily routine there, he made a short narrative video to promote the Café and market his growing filmmaking skills. Wells uses ambient sound, dramatic compositions, careful focus, tight editing, minimal text and rich atmosphere to give viewers a sense of being right there.

© David H. Wells

© David H. Wells


“I’m on a one-man campaign of sorts to encourage visual storytellers to move beyond the grammar and aesthetic of TV reporting,” he explains. “Far too much multimedia work today is made in that dominant aesthetic. If it continues, we’re missing out on some great opportunities for other ways to tell stories.”

View the video at vimeo.com/thewellspoint.

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

David H. Wells: I’ve been a freelance photographer since 1986. Between 1980 and 1986, I worked for a series of small, medium and large newspapers. In 1979, I graduated with a bachelor of arts in the liberal arts from Pitzer College, having concentrated my college studies on the history of photography.

ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?

DHW: The community of peers, the business resources and the mentoring by established pros.

ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?

DHW: The community of peers, the business resources and being represented in political and economic forums, discussions and debates regarding issues that face the professional photo community. But, especially valuable to me is the Find a Photographer portal.

ASMP: What has made you stay an ASMP member since 1992?

DHW: Not to repeat but…the community of peers, the business resources and being represented in political and economic forums, discussions and debates regarding issues that face the professional photo community. I appreciate ASMP’s stance on and very public arguments related to copyright issues and legislation. And, again, especially valuable to me is the Find a Photographer portal.

ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?

DHW: I’ve made many friends through ASMP, almost too many to enumerate. The most important relationship I’ve formed through my ASMP membership is with the larger photo community. ASMP membership is badge of distinction, an outside verification of my skills, a third-party endorsement of my expertise, which makes a big difference with both clients and students.

ASMP: Do you have a favorite ASMP-related story to share?

DHW: I’ve accrued many, many small experiences and insights garnered from established pros as I matured, and now I find myself in the position of mentoring others.

ASMP: Which ASMP education/advocacy tools do you find most helpful to your day-to-day business and why?

DHW: Find a Photographer is the most important tool. The ASMP Bulletin and the list-servs are good too. The business resources that are open to the public are also very useful, since I often direct “wannabe” photographers there. Those who are serious read all that information and start their journey with a great foundation of a photo-business education. The not-so-serious ones are overwhelmed or scared away, both of which are good things.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

DHW: I have two specialties that often overlap. One is creating what I call “Light Studies,” which are photo-essays on the light and atmosphere of certain places. (See davidHwells.com/light/projects.php). These have been done as personal projects and during international assignments, including one on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and a number in India. My first and favorite photo essay was on Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

I also specialize in photo-essays on political topics that catch my attention. I create them with the hope that the finished work becomes part of the larger cultural discussion we are having on the topic. (See: davidHwells.com/docu/documentary-projects.php). These have focused on the foreclosure crisis, the complex relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, and on the pesticide poisoning of farm workers in California.

Most recently, I am adding a specialty in concise narrative videos using ambient sound, dramatic compositions, careful use of focus, tight editing, minimal text and lots of atmosphere, so the viewer experiences the story as if they are right there. I emphasize working as a one-man-band and strive to minimize any talking heads in my videos.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

DHW: My decades of experience looking at light, dealing with people and knowing what clients need, even when they do not fully understand (or can not fully articulate it.)

ASMP: What is unique about your approach? What sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

DHW: Drawing on my study of the history of photography, I’ve figured out the very few things I am really good at and try hard to stick to those. There are many kinds of photography I do not do, for myself or for clients, because I am not that good at those other types of photography.

ASMP: What inspired you to begin creating narrative videos such as L’Artisan Café? How does creating a narrative video differ from the other formats you work in? Do you have a preferred format to work in or does this depend on the story being told?

DHW: After a few years of creating small, brief videos for The Wells Point (www.thewellspoint.com) and for a few long-established clients who already knew my capabilities, I wanted to expand my toolbox by working with new clients and in a new genre. Just like many people who work with video say, motion imaging requires me to think more about time and motion as compared to still imagery. Where I slightly disagree is that many video makers get so caught up in the “motion” they neglect the composition. My best narrative videos have strong composition, framing, lighting, etc., and they pay attention to motion as well. At the moment, I am really enjoying video, since it encompasses more senses than the still image, using both sight and sound as well as the unfolding of time. I am only half facetious when I say that when camera manufacturers incorporate smell, taste and touch it will be a complete sensory experience. Having said that, I still love the still image, be it black-and-white or color, so yes, “It does depend on the story being told.”

ASMP: Creating a narrative video requires you to work with many components such as sound, lighting, scripting, editing and so on. Please describe your planning and workflow process.

DHW: I shy away from formal scripting, which is probably an outgrowth of my journalistic background where nothing is controlled or posed. Initially, I talk the project over with the client/subject and watch them at work. Then I do some preliminary shoots, to help me form the rough structure in my head. This is usually when I gather the ambient audio for the base line sound that I’ll use. Further conversation with the client/subject helps me refine the video’s structure.

I loathe “talking heads.” Loathe them! All elements of a video, be it the sound or the video, should add something to the viewer’s experience. After ten seconds of talking heads, I try desperately to never again waste valuable time showing just the face. After talking with the client/subject and then doing the initial shooting, I have a much better idea about other narration I’ll need. With those talking points in hand, only then will I do a talking head shoot and, again, it is mostly for the voice, not to actually show the “talking head.”

I am on a one-man campaign of sorts to encourage visual storytellers using motion to move beyond the grammar and aesthetic of TV reporting. Far too much multimedia work today is basically made to look like television reporting, with the requisite talking heads, graphics, charts and all the elements that you see on TV news reporting. If that continues as the dominant aesthetic, then we are missing out on some great opportunities for other ways to tell stories.

ASMP: You did all the editing and final production for L’Artisan Café using ScreenFlow software. How does it compare with other software you’ve used for editing and final production?

DHW: Like most pros moving into motion imagery, I started with SoundSlides, then went to iMovie, and then forced myself to learn Final Cut Pro when I hit the limits of iMovie. I stumbled upon ScreenFlow in recording my screen to make podcasts for my blog. A couple of years into using it, the option to open “New Empty Document” was added and I started using it with video and audio clips that I had made elsewhere. Bingo!

It is not as sophisticated as Final Cut Pro or Premier, but it does 99 percent of what I need and it’s exponentially easier to use. I also use Media Pro from Capture One to preview the audio and video clips. That is very helpful for putting the clips into my “first draft” of what will become the progression in which the clips will appear when I assemble the rough cut.

ASMP: How much time did you spend shooting vs. editing for this project?

DHW: I spend as much as 20 percent of a project getting the client/subject to clarify exactly what it is they want the video to convey. The more we clarify, the less time is wasted on unnecessary capture, editing, etc. If I am diligent on that part, I can spend maybe another 30 percent doing the actual capture. The next 35 percent (approximately) is on the rough cut to show to the client and the final 15 percent is tweaking this to satisfy them (and me). These are rough numbers at best. Capture is by far my favorite part and final tweaking is my least favorite part. Since I am pretty well practiced with ScreenFlow, I get through the initial editing quickly.

ASMP: You worked with Olympus gear to capture video and sound for this project. How long have you been shooting with Olympus equipment?

DHW: I “went digital” involuntarily — kicking and screaming, actually — in 2003. I was quite happy making color slides with my Contax rangefinder cameras. Contax did not “go digital” so I had no legacy lenses, which is what happened with Canon and Nikon users going from film to digital. At that time, the new digital Olympus gear was cheaper, having been designed for digital use only. The Olympus gear did not need to be fully backwards compatible with their older lenses. By comparison, Canon and Nikon gear was built to have that capability with their respective older lenses, which made the digital cameras from those brands bigger and more costly. The Olympus gear was smaller and it had the self-cleaning sensor so it was an easy decision for me. With the advent of the micro four-thirds cameras, I was even closer in size and operating style to my beloved Contax rangefinders. With the folding (attenuated) screens, I am able to shoot looking down at the viewing screen, just like I used to do with the twin lens reflex cameras I used early in my career.

I’ve been an Olympus Visionary since 2011. In that role, I’ve been contracted by the camera company to produce images and provide feedback on their gear. The program promotes both individual photographers and Olympus’s technology. Visionaries participate in lectures, social media and work with photography associations, as well as doing media events, trade-shows and so on. Because I had been using Olympus gear since I went digital back in 2003, approaching Olympus in 2009 (at Photo Plus Expo) about a collaboration made sense. Olympus had me do some presentations and do some work on social media to verify my skills and my work ethic. We formalized the relationship in 2011 and I’ve enjoyed the collaboration ever since.

ASMP: Your pieces vary in length and complexity, with some being shot locally while others are shot overseas. With the understanding that each piece is unique and of variable length, can you describe your process?

DHW: To date, my videos have all been narrative photo-essays made by one person rather than full-blown videos with a big crew. I try very hard to work as a one-man band, in order to keep costs down and to be inconspicuous. While everyone ostensibly wants be Vincent Laforet or someone like that and to direct giant projects with a crew of twenty, the reality is that such projects are few and far between. Very soon everyone will be competing for those few projects. If I can work on my own, I will have plenty of work doing smaller projects where I can have more varied experiences and I can be in complete control of my projects. That interests me much more than working on monstrous productions.

The timeline is as described above. I do as much research with the client/subject as I can so I can use my time effectively. I also shoot as much preliminary material as I can to get a feel for the narrative. I look at that material and circle back to the client/subject to tweak our understanding of the narrative, and then I do the interview to get only the audio that I need. I’m aware that this is not how others work, but it works for me.

ASMP: With L’Artisan Café as one of your “local haunts”, how did that shoot differ from others where you’re working in unfamiliar locations? Did knowing the people involved make a big difference in your approach and the process of creating the video?

DHW: With the L’Artisan Café project, I had the luxury of looking at the place, the people and the routines of the Café over time to fully understand what the narrative was going to be. Having said that, once I pulled out the camera, half of my preconceptions went out the door, since the ideas in my head and the realities seen through my lens sometimes differed vastly. Knowing the people helped a bit, but strangers I included in the video were as welcoming as the staff because they, like me, love the place and staff. In general, my experience in photojournalism, especially newspapers, helped me a great deal in distilling the story down to a few elements and getting those recorded quickly.

ASMP: Your daily ritual of visiting local coffee shops while working at home is a wonderful luxury, but you also spend a lot of time on the road. How much time do you spend traveling vs. being at home, working on the computer and going out for an afternoon coffee?

DHW: In 1988, which was my busiest travel year ever, I was away 300 out of 365 days, Now, I travel 100 to 150 days a year with much of the travel being domestic, especially in the northeastern United States. When I am home, I work from after breakfast through to lunch. Then halfway through the afternoon, I have to clear my head and I take a walk to get exercise (and have my coffee). So the coffee-walk ritual is a big part of my day. It is also a big part of my relationship with my wife, so if I am home it’s almost a sacred ritual and thus it’s not a luxury, but a kind of a necessity.

ASMP: Did the locals at the Café enjoy the shooting process? Where and how do you get exposure for this piece? Does the Café use it as a marketing piece?

DHW: The staff in the Café seemed to enjoy the making of the video and the Café patrons uniformly welcomed me. I am guessing that’s because the Café is a pleasant place and because the staff there helped me with introductions as needed. The Café uses the video on their website (lartisan-Cafe.com/#about) and they tell me it’s helped increase traffic. They say it serves as a conversation piece for the Café regulars as much as anything else.

ASMP: Has the Artisan Café video had an impact on your business?

DHW: It has definitely impacted my business, both in terms of getting new work and in terms of raising my visibility. It is a unique “calling card” that I regularly send to people to introduce myself. Friends, peers and clients have passed it around as well, steps that have raised my profile a great deal and led to some new work. I’ve started doing editorial video work directly as result of this and I am in discussions with few corporate/institutional clients about collaborating on some future video projects. It also has given me an “excuse” to remind former, current and future clients what I’m doing these days.

ASMP: Are you a big coffee drinker? What is your favorite drink to order at the Café? Do you have a favorite pastry or sandwich there?

DHW: I usually have one coffee a day. I may have two a day when I’m on the road, but no more and never late in the afternoon or into the evening. I like the mochas they make at the Café and that’s also my drink of choice on the road. Raspberry filled shortbread cookies and the Zatar (a Lebanese spice) covered flat breads are my food items of choice from the Café.

ASMP: Your work was also selected for the Best of ASMP in 2009. What, if any, effect did that recognition have on your business?

DHW: It helped a lot with my growing workshop teaching business, in that it verified my credibility as a working pro. With my paying publication clients, I mostly heard that the award reminded them I continue to expand my repertoire — not to mention that I was alive and well, an important thing during a difficult time in our business when many people were leaving the field, not always by choice.

ASMP: What methods did you use to promote your recognition for the Best of ASMP 2009?

DHW: I’m embarrassed to say that my social media presence in 2009 was rather minimal compared to today, so I didn’t promote it anywhere near as widely as I will promote this year’s award.

ASMP: Has expanding your content production into narrative videos and podcasts resulted in increased opportunities for assignment work or licensing of your still images?

DHW: It has increased my assignment work a bit and also expanded the depth of those assignments to include both stills and moving images, so I get more in-depth on the jobs (both work-wise and payment-wise). It has not expanded my still image relicensing (stock licenses) but has given me the opportunity to move into stock video. For that, I make short ten second clips of single scenes, actions and so on. For example, someone pouring coffee or decorating pastries, which are part of the Café video, can be re-used as stock video elsewhere.

ASMP: How do you market your narrative videos and what percentage of your clients now request that you work in this format?

DHW: I have a newsletter that promotes my videos, which I send out periodically and will use again to promote this award. The award is a strong example of third-party validation. Most of my marketing is word of mouth and people forwarding links, especially the link to the Café video. Some clients hadn’t thought of adding video to their projects until I suggested it and most are interested, so I am adding value to our interaction. Some clients come to me wanting video only; in those cases I offer stills to, again, add value. Most of my work now has some motion component, which is a huge change from five years ago, when slideshows were considered “cutting edge.”

ASMP: What are the criteria you use when negotiating usage fees for this kind of multimedia content?

DHW: The length of time of the finished piece, how much time is involved in capture, how complex the editing and how many revisions the client will likely require. Then I factor in the market reach of the final piece as in how widely will it be shown and for how long. I always price based on a whole package, but I do my calculations based on these criteria and, as I noted earlier, “I spend as much as 20 percent of a project getting the client/subject to clarify exactly what it is they want the video to say. The more we clarify the less time is wasted on unnecessary capture, editing, etc.”

ASMP: How has your work changed since the creation of your educational blog The Wells Point? Who is your primary audience for The Wells Point and what do you hope to accomplish with this site?

DHW: The Wells Point was first built to create a market for an online critiquing business for which I was one of two founders. That never took off; people claim to want feedback from master photographers, but are not willing to actually pay for it. The Wells Point has became a venue to share photo-related material with students and students-to-be. It’s where I learned most of what I know about video, since I am 95 percent self-taught. Feeding The Wells Point forced me to make content week-in and week-out, while being a great place to showcase the pieces I made as I trained myself.

ASMP: In your 2009 Best of ASMP interview you mentioned that you were able to track visitors to your Web site but not downloads. Is this still the case?

DHW: The tracking info is much more sophisticated now, but I only look at that occasionally. If I spend too much time working on that, I am losing time to work on other things that more directly benefit my business and myself. The most popular podcasts on The Wells Point are those that deal with specifics such as how to critique photos, what is in my camera bag, how I create the dramatic shadows that I like in my images. I’ve never tried to create another Lightroom tutorial, since the Web is flooded with those and I doubt I can bring anything new to the table. In my shooting and in my teaching, I try to bring something new to the client, be it a publication or a workshop student.

ASMP: You recently presented an extensive instructional series about the photo essay and personal projects on Creative Live, which is now being offered for sale. How did this opportunity come about?

DHW: I met Ben Willmore, who has taught many classes for them, at a photo festival in California, and he introduced me to the people there. I met with them face-to-face a few months later when I was in Seattle for work. Then we started exchanging ideas and refining my class until they liked what I was going to teach. Then we signed the contract, kept refining my presentations by e-mail and then I made the presentation.

ASMP: You teach workshops on a wide range of subjects, including documentary, travel, the photo essay, street photography and business topics, and in 2011 you were named by PDN as one of the best workshop instructors. Please talk about the evolution of your teaching career.

DHW: When my daughter was born (she is 21 now) I wanted to travel less and control my time in order to be with her. I tried university teaching and found that it did not engage me (plus I lacked the required graduate degree). I tried workshops and found that I work better in those shorter, more intensive class settings. I applied all the skills I learned as a commercial pro to getting workshop teaching. I give great customer service, I am always learning from my mistakes, I am continually negotiating rates, I am a master at scheduling, etc. The workshops that hire me are clients in another form, but they are still clients and, because I do a good job, they tend to be pretty loyal and I reciprocate that loyalty. In some years, teaching may be up to half my income and other years it is down to a third of my income. Teaching makes me continually reexamine what I am doing as a photographer, since I want to be up-to-date in what I teach. It also prompts me to continually expand my definition of photography, since my best students regularly do work that is innovative and challenging, sometimes in ways I never even imagined.

ASMP: Given your knowledge of and involvement with different types of photo education, what do you see as the most promising platforms for photo education in the future?

DHW: Tough question! I would guess that two trends will prevail. One is the globalization of teaching, as in building on something like the Creative Live model, where as a student you can learn remotely from anywhere in the world. The other trend is establishing expertise; while thousands of people teach, how does the student-to-be know if you are any good? Any venue where folks can see me teach, be it a public presentation, a camera club talk or the Creative Live presentation, shows them that I can speak intelligently, teach, communicate, etc. and so they should invest the energy, time and money in my classes.

ASMP: What types of social networking vehicles do you use to spread information about your work and generate interest? Approximately how much of your time do you spend on social media?

DHW: As of this writing, mid August, I have just started using Instagram. I use   aboutme — http://about.me/thewellspoint   Blog — http://thewellspoint.com/   Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/thewellspoint   Twitter — https://twitter.com/thewellspoint   Vimeo — https://vimeo.com/thewellspoint/   Tumblr — http://thewellspoint.tumblr.com/   Instagram — http://instagram.com/thewellspoint and I publish a monthly newsletter, http://thewellspoint.com/wp-login.php?action=register.

The most fascinating thing is how different people interact with me through different media. Some folks only use Facebook, while others disdain Facebook, for example. I probably spend 15 to 20 hours a week on all social media and general self-promotion (which is largely through social media) including the newsletter.

ASMP: Which social media sites are your favorites and how do you use them? Do you also use these sites to gather information and stay informed?

DHW: I personally like Tumblr the most since it shows my photos most dramatically. I scan all the social media sites I use as I do my own posting, but frankly, I try not to get sucked in because I could spend hours looking to see what’s going on and, if so, all my “other” work would never get done.

ASMP: What type of online resources do you consult most often on a regular basis?

DHW: I get most of my info through list-serves. That is the old fashioned way, I know. These include almost all of the various ASMP list-serves, bulletins and printed publications. Ditto for online and printed info from NPPA and via Photo District News. I do not have my spam filters turned on (intentionally) so I scan lots of junk but periodically I get something interesting and photo-related from a new source, so I take that chance. One other good resource is http://philanthropynewsdigest.org/rfps.

My two biggest resources day-in, day-out are Pro Photo Daily and Motion Arts Pro. How they find so much new material each day is amazing.

ASMP: Given all of the different types of photo stories you’ve worked on over the years, what story or location has been the most memorable for you?

DHW: Although I’ve not been there in almost ten years, working in Bangladesh has been one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever done. Yes, it is a poor country, but it is so much more than that. Teaching at Pathsahala, the South Asian Media Institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh, has always been one of my favorite experiences. I have taught there three times and I have done a couple of assignments in Bangladesh with the help of the Pathshala students. Pathshala is a marvelous institution nurturing photographers from within Bangladesh, many of whom have gone on to great sucess and international acclaim. Teaching there enables me to really make a difference, and the students show me aspects of life and their culture which I would never otherwise see on my own. Plus, the Bangladeshi people are very proud people and very hospitable.

ASMP: What story or location has been your most challenging to date?

DHW: Not to evade answering, but each project I’ve done was challenging at two points: The process of the initial definition/focus/clarification of my thinking, which happens in the beginning — that is always hard. The other point in a project that is hard is after committing to the project and not getting outside validation (exhibits, grants, publication). That moment is hard because it takes faith to believe in one’s work, but humility to know when to adapt to the reality/outside forces reshaping your work. The point is that any successful project I’ve done means I was able to get past those challenges. Two of my many failed projects stick out in my mind because they were as hard as any and they failed. One failure was my fault and the other failure was out of my control. They say you learn most from your failures. I certainly do.

ASMP: Your wife, Annu Palakunnatu Matthew, is also a photographer as well as an educator. Please briefly describe how this relationship influences your work and career.

DHW: We bounce ideas off each other constantly, about almost everything we do. At our best, we each offer the other person a different perspective on the work we are discussing. She offers input that makes my work have more of my own stamp of authorship. I offer input to make sure her work does not go too far off the academic “deep end.” We work together a lot on each other’s projects. (For example, I tech some of her shoots and she assists me on assignments in India.) In terms of a more formal collaboration, I doubt it. We both have healthy enough egos to know that such a collaboration would not be wise. :)

ASMP: What’s next on your project agenda?

DHW: I have a few projects in the works, some that I’ve shot for, some of which are only on the drawing board (or just in my head). Some are motion-based, some are still image-based and some use both. I do not like to talk about those since they will change completely between initiation and full execution, as well as the fact that they are nowhere near fully formed. Also, we work in a hyper-competitive market, where each little advantage a photographer has can make all the difference between success and also-ran status.

ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received?

DHW: Over the years I have heard a number of versions of the basic idea that “You may love photography but photography does not love you back. On the other hand, if you treat it like a business at least it will respect you (and you will not go hungry).”

ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?

DHW: Leaving the newspaper world to go freelance back in 1985. Not that I saw the demise of newspapers coming, but rather I was not well suited for that environment. I was looking for a place to do the kind of in-depth photo-essays that I now work on. Since then, I’ve had mixed luck with decisions and timing. I jumped into stock photography somewhat too late, mistakenly listening to the naysayers, who were wrong. I went digital at a logical time in my own development. Teaching myself to work with digital video and diving into it early-ish seems like one of the better-timed decisions I’ve made.

ASMP: What is the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer starting out now?

DHW: Though it’s hard to believe, since this is a technology-driven profession, the technology is secondary. You will need to know it anyway, so start learning it on your own. The other skills, the “soft skills” of marketing, thinking outside the box, writing, self promotion, social media, networking, interpersonal skills and the like are what matter. Study those. Study the career paths of accomplished masters to figure out how they became such masters. Study other languages. Anything you can add to your bag of tricks that will differentiate you will be useful.

ASMP: Have you set any major personal or professional goals for yourself in the years ahead?

DHW: I would like to become better known for my narrative videos. I aspire to continue to shoot them and teach about them, ideally for clients with slightly bigger budgets in various interesting places.

I am not sure they are goals but… As I noted earlier, I am on a one-man campaign of sorts to encourage the visual storytellers who are using motion to move beyond the grammar and aesthetic of TV reporting. Far too much multimedia work today is basically made to look like television reporting, with the requisite talking heads, graphics, charts and all the elements that you see on TV news reporting. If that continues as the dominant aesthetic, then we are missing out on some great opportunities for other ways to tell stories.

While I wouldn’t mind bigger budgets and more pay, I want to remain a one-man operation and I want others to be comfortable embracing the one-man-band model. There are millions of clients-to-be are waiting to be made into clients. Once they understand what video can do for them and how it can be done simply, they will pay for the smaller videos I am making. We need to collectively embrace this as model and educate our clients-to-be about what we can do for them.