I'm not sure when Levi Sim came into our lives, because he's one of those personalities you just feel has always been around. While he's only been shooting for four years, the passion he has for people and imaging simply knows no bounds. Walk into any program that Levi's attending and he'll be the first one you'll meet.
What's amazed me is the enthusiasm and appreciation he has for life. The first year he met my wife Sheila at Skip's Summer School a thank you note arrived just a few days later, thanking her for the support to all the projects I work on. And it's that quality of appreciation and caring about this industry that's made him so legendary in such a short period of time.
I heard Levi speak for the first time at an Unconference for TAP (Technically Advanced Publishing) last January. It's the best line yet for explaining how everyone should behave with each other,
"Act as if your grandmother is always watching!"
Levi, couldn't come from more humble beginnings as a professional photographer...he knew virtually nothing, but had the passion and pulled together one of the strongest Smugs in the country...manages a photography club he started of his own with over 600 members and is President of SCU's advisory board, the Student Council.
He's a prime example of somebody who's simply a sponge when it comes to education and is constantly studying with some of the finest instructors in professional photography today. Skip Cohen
I have owned a camera for four years, and I've learned everything I know about photography in that time. Before my camera even arrived, I had read Joe McNally's The Hot Shoe Diaries and attended a terrific workshop with David Ziser. So I'm not one who started in photography by shooting landscapes and learning everything over time; I dove into people pictures from the start with a focussed effort on lighting things well.
The trouble I ran into was finding subjects to photograph. I knew I needed to get some practice and really understand how the things I thought I had learned applied to my work, and I knew I needed lots of practice before I could hang out my shingle and claim to be a pro. My only solution was to ask! I turned to the people I sat next to at church and asked if I could invite their daughter (a senior in high school) for a portrait session. They said, "Yes, please!"
We ended up having a great time, and I learned volumes (for instance, don't clamp your speedlight to a dumpster and then leave it there when you switch locations...)
That summer I wanted to get the word out I was available for business, and I thought the local Garden's Market would be a good place to meet people. I rented a space and set up a tent with a backdrop and stood there smiling, waiting for people to come into my booth. It wasn't long before I realized that I'd be waiting a very long time for folks to approach me. So, I starting asking everyone who walked by if I could make a free portrait, and again they said, "Yes, please!" I spent the whole morning photographing kids and siblings, and I learned volumes (for instance, green grass underfoot results in green shadows under chins).
Still, I didn't get any bookings, so I thought it was kind of a flop. Until a few months later when Beth called and said I had asked to photograph her daughters at the market, and could I come and do a portrait of them before Christmas? I said, "Yes, please!"
Beth has since become a great friend and I've photographed all her daughters' senior pictures, and we made a terrific portrait of her and her five girls just the other day. And it's all because I asked if I could.
Shortly after my session for Beth, I started traveling all over the country for my job. My first trip was to Alaska, and I saw the guy sitting next to me on the plane had great light shining in his eyes from the window, so I asked if I could photograph him.
Later, I was just finishing up my work, and the guy who owned the place had good light in his face from the window behind me, so I asked if I could make a portrait. The next day, I was done with the job, and the sun was still up (Alaska in the summer!) so I climbed a mountain nearby and met a father and son on the trail who were camped in a beautiful spot, so I asked if I could make a picture.
Before leaving town, I drove outside Anchorage down Turn Again Arm and was shooting a waterfall in bad light when the high school's cross country ski team came riding into the parking lot on bicycles, so I asked if I could make a picture. And they all said, "Yes!"
I was on the flight home from that trip and my seat mate told me about his time in the Vietnam War, and about how he was recruited from college by the state department and was promised he would not be sent to the war, and about how he was not only sent to the front but was there for five years instead of the shorter term army recruits were sent for and about the terrible things he witnessed and the secrecy and the awfulness of war, and he was thoughtful and the light was great in his face and I'll never forget speaking with him. But, I was kinda tired, so I didn't ask if I could make a picture. That's one of my few regrets.
Have I been turned down? Yes. I was in a restaurant in Atlanta having lunch when a few moms came in with their daughters, like a girls' day out. The light was great, and these 8 year old girls were super cute, acting like ladies at their own table, so I asked if I could do their portrait. Actually, as I recall, I said, "Hi, do you mind if I make a picture of your girls?" "Um, what are you going to do with it?" "I dunno, maybe put it on my blog..." (this is when I realized what a creeper I sounded like) "Uh, yeah, not such a fan of that--thanks, though." Bless those southern ladies.
With the exception of those times when I was sounding creepy, people have almost never turned me down for a portrait, including people I've run into around the world from Seoul to Riyadh.
This is how I learned to find great light, and how I learned to talk to people, and how I learned that talking to people makes a better picture than anything else on the planet, and shows more about places and cultures than any landmark ever could.
Just ask, and always ask. It'll change your life.