Using it up. Getting your money's worth out of your gear.

If you are like me then there are some products in your inventory that you buy once and use almost forever. You use and abuse light stands right up until the moment they succumb to metal fatigue and collapse in final exhaustion. Who goes out impulse shopping for sandbags? And background stands? I'm still working on the set I bought nearly 30 years ago. Yeah, they're a little bent but they still work.

I keep some stuff around forever, like Super Clamps and "A" clamps, and the arm that holds up my collapsible reflectors, and my twelve year old Canon ink jet printer. All the stuff that just works and does basically the same job it's always done just seems to stick around and keep helping me make new photographs.

I looked at my set today in Johnson City and started tallying the ages of the gear I was using. With the exception of my D810 and the 24-120mm f4 I had on the front of the camera everything else was at least five years old. The panels and flags and scrims? Closer to ten years old. The light stands? It's not polite to ask when stuff gets that old....

But here's the thing that I've been thinking about lately. Since I have to spend so much money to get a state-of-the-art camera body every year to eighteen months I tend to baby the best stuff I have for nearly all of its time with me. Let me explain: I buy a Nikon D810 because I research it and convince myself that it's a spectacular performer. But after dropping $3200 on the body I think to myself that I should "save it" for the big, paying jobs. Wouldn't I feel depressed if I took it out to a birthday party or out shooting on a personal "art" project and broke it? Then I wouldn't have the use of this "necessary" tool when the next big job comes around. I leave it in the cabinet until a job that's big enough to justify the risk that something might happen to it comes along. Then I baby it in transit. It rides in a nice rolling case. It's carefully placed on a tripod and when I've finished using it for the day it's right back into the case.

At times I am so fearful that I'll lose the opportunity to use the "ultimate" camera that I substitute other cameras for my own work even though I know the images could potentially be better with the more expensive camera.

A case in point;  I got the first D610 camera as a back up to the D810. But I started subbing the D610 for 70-80% of the stuff I shoot to "preserve" the life of the D810 for the day when the big job rolls around. Then I bought a second D610 to back up the first one. When I head out for a walk it's almost always a D610 that tags along. When I head out in the rain...D610. Just about any time except when shooting for big money it's the D610. And that makes me think that I'm wasting a depreciating resource. What is my strategy? To baby this camera until it's superseded by the next "ultimate" camera, all the while settling for less than the best performance?

I pulled the D810 out today for a walk around the lake. I decided to think of it as a carton of milk (admittedly, expensive milk) with an expiration date. My new goal is to use the camera for every conceivable situation until I've used it up. A commensurate goal is to end up "needing" to buy the next camera because I've worn this one down to a nubbin. You know, parts held on with gaff tape, scuffs, brassing (if there is any brass under there) and general wear and tear. I want to squeeze all the potential out of this camera with every shot I make.

So, you think I'm a bit off and you are more logical? How's your best camera doing? Is it your "go to" machine? You don't think twice about taking it everywhere?  Hmm. Maybe you're better adjusted than I am. But the first step is awareness...

Resolved. No more conservation of camera resources. I want to use them up. I want to feel like I squeezed all the best frames out of the D810 before I give it up for the next generation.

Heat Wave. Texas Summer Finally Arrived.

After a much wetter than average Spring we're on record for one of our driest Julys. As of last week the first big high pressure system rolled in and it's been driving out clouds and driving up temperatures every day. Yesterday it was over 100 and now the weather people are forecasting afternoon temperatures over 102(f) for the foreseeable future.

Funny thing is that I've been booked on more outdoor shoots than anything else for the last month. Some of them are executive portrait assignments and so far we haven't lost anyone from the heat. I try to get to locations by 7 am and get set up and ready to work by 8 am. Most shoots don't go much past noon which still means that we're loading up sandbags and gear in the hottest part of the day.

It's times like this that I envy the still life shooters all nestled into their chilly still life shooting caves with the air conditioners throbbing and the music pounding.

Our mantra for shooting exterior in the Summer is: Stay hydrated. Stay in the shade. Carry less stuff on each trip to the and from the car. Wear your hat. Keep some sunscreen in the camera bag. Keep light color "hats" on the cameras when not in use. Go home early. A couple weeks of the high pressure system and we'll be back to normal.

To the above list of "survival tips" I'll also add: Wooden tripods, no black light stands, umbrellas can be used to create shade. More water. And, stay in good shape.

Hope you are staying cool....


I love the stairways that flow down into the pool at the Balmorhea State Park Pool. Cold springs and lots of space to swim or float.

All images: Olympus EP-2 camera.

Leaning heavily on the Elinchrom Ranger Pack this month. If it's not the need for power it's the need for enough power and fast recycling. Over and over again.

I think it's funny how some photographers use the same exact gear for everything they do while others use different gear all the time. I count myself in the second camp and I'm starting to see a pattern in my use of lights. It starts when a client decides they need to do photographs outside with people. They want the people well lit and they want the lighting on the people to blend with the direct sunlight falling on everything else. 

We bring out scrims or flags to take the direct sun off the subjects and then use a powerful flash in a nice softbox or umbrella to put more controlled and flattering light back on the subject. And since we need power without squinting and blinking we tend to use electronic flash. But the simple truth of Murphy's law is that the nearest outlet for that big flash pack will be just a few dozen feet further away, outdoors, that the longest extension cord you have.  Or there will be no A/C power anywhere in sight. 

That's when we bring out our Elinchrom Ranger power pack and its two companion heads. We can put 1100 watt seconds on a subject about 250 times in a row before we need to recharge the internal lead/acid battery or change the battery out for our back-up battery. With both batteries in tow we've got the potential to do over 500 full power, sun matching flashes in big soft boxes or big umbrellas before we need to call it quits. And if we work that light in close and drop the power down to a bit less than half, along with a slower recycle setting, we can knock out thousands and thousands of sun challenging flashes out in the middle of nowhere. 

So, once the exterior projects start up in Spring our minds wrap themselves around the Ranger pack until every project looks like a candidate for the Ranger pack treatment. Interior, exterior, whatever. It doesn't hurt that the well designed system puts out beautiful quality lighting that's amazingly consistent either. 

Eventually we'll get side tracked by a hybrid video/still photo assignment and that will lead me away from the flash and on to something in the tungsten, fluorescent, LED zone and the Elinchrom Ranger system will end up back in its case waiting for the next CEO portrait with the Austin skyline in the background. 

It's nice to have choices.

60 inch white/black umbrella on location.

Ranger RX AS at low power for almost endless flashes and fast recycle. 

And what project photographing people for advertising would be complete without
the make up person?

The self timer. An important tool for photographers who work alone.

This is me. Or at least it was me this past Spring on a rainy day inside Zach Theatre. I'm sure you're wondering why I am standing in the frame with a loony grin on my face and the word "dream" over might right shoulder. Well, I am not really trying to fill up my selfie portfolio, I am trying to make sure the lighting I've set up, and the composition I've set up for my interview with singer, Jennifer Halliday is exactly what we need and want for the video interview we'd be doing ten minutes later.

I was using four fluorescent light fixtures and trying to make sure that the levels were correct and that the color matched the look and feel of the background without any weird color casts. I'd arrived about 45 minutes before the interview was schedule to start and the first thing I did was to put up the camera I'd be using to record a 5 to 10 minute program. It was a Nikon D810 with and 85mm f1.8G lens. Once I had the background framed I started working on how I would frame Ms. Halliday. The next step was to put an "X" of gaffer's tape on the floor to market the "sweet spot" of the composition so I'd be able to move Ms. Halliday into place with a minimum of indecision.

When the composition and camera position were set I started setting up the lights, aiming for a nice bright interview area with lots of soft and flattering light. I've set up lots of portrait lights and interview lighting designs but I always want to see how the end product will look on a human face before I have my subjects walk into the set and get started. I think it's rude to do a lot of fine tuning while everyone waits on you.   So I put the Nikon into its still mode, turn on the self timer and set it to a ten second delay, manually focus by intuition and then step onto the "X" on the floor.

A few seconds later and the shutter fires. Now I have an image I can look at, dissect, etc. which gives me a reference for fine-tuning the lighting, the composition and everything else. I might go back and forth to the camera a handful of times doing an iterative process of correcting and verifying, correcting and verifying, until I am satisfied that what I've done will work for the job.

I leave all the lights on while waiting for the subject to arrive. I want the room to appear as it will be throughout the interview. No changes = less resistance.  Once we've got the tech set I do one more self-timer shot to double check all the final adjustments and then switch the camera over to video capture.

Lots of people work with crews of three or four (or more) people. I dislike having lots of people on sets. There are too many places for our subjects to look; too many eyelines, too many distractions. Certainly I'll bring along enough people to help if there are lots of moves to be made, lots of gear to be transported, and lots of things happening almost simultaneously, but I think a lot of photo and video shoots are wildly overpopulated by "staff" and that photographers and videographers are fooling themselves if they think having a bustling entourage is always helpful. A full room diminishes your hopes for any sort of intimacy or connection with your subject.

This is why the self-timer is an integral part of my set up. It allows me to have control over the look and feel of my lighting and composition without the need for a bevy of warm bodies wandering about the sets.

The way I like to work is very dependent on one thing in particular: I want all the set up, the sausage making, to happen before my subject(s) steps into the room. An actor, model or real life human should be able to walk into your shooting environment, find their mark and do their part of the job without waiting for you to get ready. I guarantee that this sort of pre-production makes everyone happier.

Self-timer. Set lighting. Composition.  Finally, a constructive use for the "selfie."