Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Interview with Khara Plicanic

This post marks the first of an upcoming series of interviews with photographers doing unique, interesting, and/or exceptional things.  When I recently learned about Lincoln, Nebraska, based wedding photographer and instructor Khara Plicanic, I could think of no better person for my kick-off interview.  Besides doing some excellent wedding (and formerly, portrait) work at KaBloom Studios, she has just published her first book, Your Camera Loves You:  Learn to Love It Back, and she is an avid speaker who loves sharing her passion and workflow techniques with the world.  In fact, she and husband Emir are currently in the midst of the [UN]tour, a cross-country bicycle tour on which Khara is presenting two free photography workshops in a handful of cities across the southern United States.

So, without further ado, here is my with Khara Plicanic:

PRI:  Thanks so much for sharing your time with us.  How did you get started in photography? 

KP:  I was one of those kids who always wolfed down my broccoli first, saving dessert for last so I could really savor it. In high school, photography class was like my dessert. I saved it for my senior year after all my pre-reqs were out of the way so I'd be more free to enjoy it. We shot on black and white Kodak Tri-X film and I fell in love with the whole process, especially the darkroom. There's something so nostalgic and classically romantic about that process that isn't the same in digital (though I definitely don't miss the chemicals and the mess!). That was the extent of my formal training. I've been on a self-directed learning adventure ever since!

PRI:  At what point did you decide, "Hey, I can make a living doing this?"

KP:  Taking the leap to full-time was definitely a process. When my business was first taking off, I was still working full-time because I was too afraid to let go, but my husband's support and encouragement finally helped me see that taking the business full-time was the way to go.

PRI:  You're best known for shooting seniors and weddings.  Do you cover other genres as well, or do you stick to what you do best?

KP:  In any business, I think it's really important to focus. I've spent several years building a very strong senior portrait and wedding business, but this past summer I made the decision to focus exclusively on weddings. As tough as it was to walk away from a waiting list of senior portrait clients that were often booked over a year in advance, with my book coming out, a tour in the works, and plans to eventually start a family, I had to re-evaluate my life and my business. Tightening my focus allows me to continue to go above and beyond for my clients, while also creating the opportunity to pursue other projects and continue my growth both personally and professionally.

PRI:  Are you still teaching photography regularly at Lincoln's Southeast Community College?

KP:  I am! It's not always easy to fit in my schedule, but it's something that I continue to make time for because I adore it. I've been teaching there for years (at least six or so) and am grateful to be able to give back to the community. I've met so many incredible people there over the years, it's truly been a fantastic experience.

PRI:  When did you first get the idea for your book, Your Camera Loves You: Learn to Love It Back?

KP:  The book is based on the digital camera class of the same name that I've been teaching at SCC in Lincoln for a number of years.  The whole premise is that people frequently abandon perfectly good cameras, thinking that a newer one will somehow give them better photos. The problem is that cameras don't take great photos, people do. And there are so many powerful features built in to most every digital camera (point-and-shoot and dSLRs both!) that often go unused, getting tossed aside without ever having realized their potential. So it's like, "Hey! Your camera has some awesome features it would love for you to use. Features that are begging to be put to work." I created the class to help people quit fighting with their cameras and learn to love them back.

The book came about because people would always ask me for book recommendations, and I struggled to find something for them that would support the unique way I present the information in class. So after a few years, I wrote my own. :)

PRI:  Did you write and illustrate the whole book yourself? How long did it take to go from the initial outline to the mostly-finished final draft?

KP:  Having taught the class for several years, I felt like I had a really great grasp on the audience and the material, which definitely came in handy when I started working on the manuscript in November, turning in the last of the final draft the beginning of May. My husband helped with some of the illustrations.

PRI:  Now that the book has been shipping for a little while, what has the response been like?

KP:  Well, I don't have another book to compare it to, but I've certainly enjoyed the messages people have sent, the photos they've shared, and the reviews that I've seen. It's entirely satisfying to know readers are enjoying and learning from the book in the way I hoped they would. Its playful and lighthearted nature seems to really be resonating with people—and I love that.

PRI:  After going through the whole author experience, is this something you'd recommend to others, or would you run screaming if somebody suggested you write a second book?

KP:  I thought about that a lot while I was writing, contemplating the idea of possible future books and how I would feel about the idea. Writing a book is no easy feat, that's for sure. But even on the days where having my teeth pulled seemed preferable to wrestling some words out and onto the page—I loved it. I had the opportunity to craft something out of my head and share it with a large audience, all while surrounded by an incredible team of people (editors, production staff, and the entire crew at Peachpit Press). I was in heaven!

PRI:  You've gained some notoriety with your wickedly fast wedding workflow. How did you develop that workflow, and why is it such a difficult problem for even professional photographers to solve?

KP:  Workflow is like a weed. If you don't stay on top of it, your garden gets compromised in a flash. (Not that I'm a great gardener… that's a whole other story….)

For a lot of photographers, it's hard just to keep up, let alone find time to strategize about how things could be improved. 

A few years ago, I spent a couple seasons single-handedly shooting (and processing) 150 senior portraits, 30+ weddings, and 50+ other sessions. And though no one waited more than 3 weeks to get their proofs back, I still felt like I could come up with a more well thought out plan, something that goes far beyond simply getting faster at Lightroom or programming some personal keyboard shortcuts. So I spent some time thinking about what makes workflow so challenging, where the hold ups usually are, and how to best overcome them. I made some changes and am happy to report that for the past 2 years, every single one of my wedding clients has gotten their proofs and album design back within a week of their wedding (sometimes as fast as the very next day!). 

It's all about simplification and controlling the process, rather than letting the process control you. The results are very empowering, for photographers and their clients alike.

PRI:  Your workflow is one of the topics you'll be presenting on your upcoming [UN]tour, as well as an introductory class to photographic newcomers.  With the countless other photography workshops and classes that exist, what gave you the idea to create your own workshop tour?

KP:  There's definitely an overflowing plethora of photographic workflow options out there, which I think is a great thing because inspired learning never gets old. What I especially like about The [UN]tour is the unique approach (we're riding our bikes across the country to do it), the grass-roots angle (the classes are entirely free, taking place in small venues and local businesses), and the unique subject matter (nobody talks about workflow or beginner photo tips quite like this!).

A lot of marketing people have expressed concern that the classes are free, afraid that people won't perceive them as "valuable." But to us, it just made sense. We wanted to do something different and Unexpected (get it?), but most importantly—we wanted to have fun.

PRI:  Which idea came first:  the workshop tour or the cross-country bike tour? How long did it take you to pair the two ideas together, and how did that happen?

KP:  The groundwork for the idea was first built when some friends convinced me to sign up and train for a half-marathon almost two years ago. I enjoyed the process and soon found myself reading a book called My Life on the Run by Bart Yasso. A relentless adventurer, the book included the tale of Bart's cross-country cycle trip and I turned to my husband and thought, "Wouldn't that be fun?"

The next book I happened to read was Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which also happened to include a brief story of his cross-country bicycle trek. The idea was already percolating in my mind, so when a third book in a row (Chris Guillebeau's The Art of Non-Conformity) made mention of a coast to coast bike ride, I knew we had to make it happen.

We love to travel for travel's sake, but I always find it to be an especially rich experience when we travel with some sort of purpose to give a framework to whatever it is we're doing. With my book just being released in August, we thought it would make perfect sense to take some of the book's ideas out on the road—so here we are!

PRI:  You and Emir are not avid cyclists (or weren't until recently).  What prompted you to put both of your careers on hold and pedal 3000 miles... and on a fixed schedule, no less? This isn't exactly an aimless walkabout.

KP:  Cycling is definitely entirely new to us (we bought our bikes specifically for this trip). But that's part of what is so cool about it—you don't have to be a biking fanatic or an elite athlete to do this. I've read articles about people in their 70's cycling across the country. Talk about inspiration!

I don't consider this trip to be putting our careers on hold at all. Rather, it's more of a very special, and definitely work related, project. A large amount of sacrifice was required in order to pull off, but we consider it an investment. Placing a tremendous amount of value on experiential learning for both personal and professional development, we feel like this trip will be brimming with opportunity for growth and adventure. We are both very much looking forward to seeing how this experience will impact the work we do and the ideas we have in the future.

PRI:  Do you have a support crew that's trucking your presentation equipment for you from one stop to the next, or are you packing the whole shooting match on your bikes?

KP:  We're traveling entirely self-supported, carrying everything (including a tent, food, and water) with us on our bikes. (I did ship a few prize giveaways ahead though, as books can be heavy!)

PRI:  Your [UN]tour workshops are free.  Do you have corporate sponsors footing the bill for this trip, or is this a labor of love out of your own pocket?

KP:  We have some support from various partners, but we're footing the vast majority of the bill ourselves, out of our own pockets.

PRI:  What part of this tour are you most looking forward to? What part are you most dreading?

KP:  I'm most looking forward to the various people we'll meet, enjoying the various regional cultures and scenery, and of course, teaching the classes. I'm definitely not looking forward to the hills, and possible scarcity of showers. lol!

PRI:  Not including the [UN]tour, how many speaking engagements do you do per year?  Do you enjoy events like that?

KP:  I'm always honored when someone thinks that an idea I've had might be helpful to them and asks me to share it with a group. These days, I do maybe 20-30 speaking engagements per year and am always thrilled to do more. The crafting of an idea and the execution of its delivery is something I enjoy as much as photography itself.

PRI:  I'd love to be part of one of your postprocessing workshops.  Do you ever present them locally [in our hometown of Lincoln], or are there plans to record your presentations for online viewing?

KP:  I present my workflow classes at conferences including WPPI and SWPP. It's also available in PDF format from [the now discontinued] RockYourWorkflow web site. I haven't presented it locally yet... but if/when I do, I'd hope to see you there! :)

PRI:  Where do you see your career five years from now?  Will it be significantly different than where you are today?  How?  What long term goals do you have?

KP:  The past couple of years have brought significant change to my business, and I expect that the future will hold more reinvention, discovery, and excitement. Writing, teaching, and presenting are three things I'm really passionate about, and I look forward to incorporating them into my work even more so in the years that come. My long term goals include, among other things, continuing to find joy and purpose in my work.

PRI:  Amen to that.  Can you name one other artist (not necessarily a photographer) who inspires your own work?

KP:  I'm inspired both personally and professionally by daring individuals of all disciplines, including Steve Jobs, Tina Fey, and Lady Gaga, authors Chris Guillebeau and Tim Ferriss, and athletes/adventurers like Bart Yasso. It's an eclectic mix, for sure!

PRI:  So there you have it, sports fans.  Hopefully you've been as inspired by Khara's story as I have.  If you live in the southern US, be sure to check out one of her stops on the [UN]tour.  If not, grab a copy of her book and check out her workflow pointers or her wedding work at any of the links below.

All images in this post were provided by Khara.  As always, if you have any comments you'd like to share, please do so below.  I'm developing a list already, but if you know of any other photographers or related artists whose story would be of particular interest to our readers, please let me know how to get in touch with them.

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