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"No Excuses" Attitude Helps Award-Winning Photographer Perfect His Craft - PPA Today

"No Excuses" Attitude Helps Award-Winning Photographer Perfect His Craft

BartonHeadshot.jpgIn 2001, Michael Barton, M.Photog.MEI.Cr., CPP, F-PPANI, A-APPI, was a studio musician trying to make good in an industry that leaves the majority of its practitioners singing the blues at one time or another. Then his father bought him a camera for Christmas.

"I'm an artist at heart, so I had always been fascinated by photography," says Barton. At a low point in his music career, the camera also provided a creative outlet that Barton needed. "I just picked it up and started shooting," he says.

But Barton, being a goal-oriented achiever, wasn't content with just taking pictures. "I started carrying around a notebook and recording everything about the shots I took--the lighting, the f-stops and every detail." And looking back, he says that was the beginning of his passion for the perfect shot.

Passion Turns to Profit
Still, Michael thought of photography as a hobby until 2004 when he found himself out of work and needing a full-time job. "I started applying for a variety of things, including three photography jobs," says Barton. And to be honest, he was surprised when he got a full-time photography gig. "It was a situation where I never planned to walk away from music as my career, but photography had become a passion, too, and all of a sudden, I was working at it 60 hours a week."

Barton, who now owns Indigo Photographic Inc. outside of Chicago, went full-bore into photography with one of the largest suppliers of senior portraits in the area. That's when his intensity and commitment to constantly challenging himself started paying off.

Gerber01.jpg"Suddenly, I was shooting weddings, seniors, and also freelancing for magazines. I completely immersed myself in studying photography--what worked, what didn't--and I wholly committed to doing at least one thing every day to make myself better."

Good Hinders Great
Barton's intensity and boldness sometimes got him in trouble. "I thought most senior photography was too bland--good images at a good price, but everything looked the same."

Armed with that notion, Barton decided to get edgy. "I posed a senior girl in high heels sitting backwards on a chair and shot it a lot like I would have shot a model for a magazine cover. I almost got fired," he recalls.

But it didn't take long for the studio to notice that Barton's session sales were outpacing other photographers. "After a few months, the other photographers were getting in trouble because they weren't shooting like that," Barton says.

And Barton leveraged that lesson into what he calls one of his epiphanies about photography. "Famous people get all the great lighting and posing. It takes just as long to light and pose badly as it does to do it well. Why aren't we shooting everyone with the great stuff?"

A Straight-Shooter
Barton speaks from the heart when he speaks of photography as a career and challenges his colleagues.

"We need to stop accepting 'good enough.' We have to pursue greatness all the time. I'm in charge of my clients' memories, and I lose sleep over that," Barton says. "When a young man comes to me to have his senior pictures taken, that's probably the last time he'll have a portrait done until he's standing up in a tux with his bride. That's his parents' last chance to capture that unique moment between childhood and manhood. I have to get that right. We all have to get that right."

Thumbnail image for Blues Man.jpgOne of the ways Barton makes sure he always gets it right is by challenging himself in photographic competition. "People don't have to come to me to get their portraits made," he notes. "I have to give them something special to keep them coming to me, and competition helps me always keep that edge."

These days, Barton routinely enjoys winning along with learning, but it wasn't always that way.

"I've heard so many people say that they don't want to compete because they're afraid their images won't do well. Not me," laughs Barton. "I had no apprehension. No fear. I was so stupid."

Winning is a Mission
Barton says he stood in the judging room of his first regional competition all day "completely hacked off" as his images were critiqued. "My first case just bombed. I got killed--a total disgrace," he says. But he also says that while he was standing there steaming, he was taking notes. "I had my notebook out, writing down everything they were saying, and I made it a point to introduce myself to judges and ask questions."

As he has approached most other things in life, Barton decided winning at competition was a mission, and he approached it with the same passion he brought to his photography and his music. "I joined the local guild and earned a fellowship in 10 months," says Barton. And soon after, the national recognition started coming.

In Pursuit of Perfection
"In 2007, my first image merited at national competition, but the other three tanked." Still, Barton had tasted success and that just fueled his drive more. Then, a PPA mentor said the magic words.

"Jim Chagares (M.Photog.MEI.Cr., CPP) told me my problem was having a score of 80 as my goal (the minimum score for a merit). He told me I needed to make a score of 100 my goal...and then the merits would come."

Barton admits it sounds like such a little thing, but it changed his whole approach. "It was just that simple. I stopped the 'yeah, buts' about my images. I stopped thinking about good enough and started aiming for perfection. I found a group of friends who were just as relentless, and we all started beating each other up. I studied and studied, and I decided to pursue perfection with every image."

The results speak for themselves. Since that bit of advice three years ago, Barton has earned 15 exhibition merits, 14 Electronic Imaging merits, and has had eight images chosen for the International Loan Collection.

No Excuses
Barton says photographic competition can transform your work. "I started seeing everything differently," he notes. "That's what competition will do for you--it will help you view everything differently. It will make you very conscious of every detail. It will leave you with no excuses."

There's that Barton brand of intensity again.

The Heart of Nature(2).jpgBarton also conducts seminars and workshops on workflow and technology for photographers, and he says it's not unusual to hear complaints about the increasing numbers of photographers out there. "Then in the next breath," he adds, "they'll tell me they don't have time to participate in competition. I say you can't afford not to participate in competition because the best way to stand out in the market today is to build an identity that's uniquely yours. Photographic competition will help you do that."

If you'd like to find out more about Barton's workshops on photography, workflow and technology--including "The Fine Art of Fine Art Flower Photography," a PPA continuing education workshop coming up June 6th--he says you can find him on Facebook at the Indigo Photographic Inc. page, or just visit him on the Web at

Michael has won several Kodak Gallery Awards, Fuji Masterpiece Awards and also received the Canon Par Excellence Award for Electronic Imaging in 2009. Michael was a PPA Photographer of the Year, Electronic Imager of the Year and Top 10 Mid-America Photographer for 2008 and 2009 and MARC Illinois Photographer of the Year in 2010. Barton is also a member of the American Society of Photographers.

Images ©Michael Barton.

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This page contains a single entry by Professional Photographers of America (PPA) published on May 18, 2010 7:16 PM.

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