Sunday Rants and Rabid Opinions.

Don't know what it is about Sundays but all the bloggers and columnist seem to set this day aside for their pet rants about stuff that bothers them.  I thought I was immune but I spent to much time on Flickr today and now I'm in full rant mode.   Let's start at the top.  You'd think that back lighting and rim lighting had just been invented.  The lighting effect is like the iPod of the first decade, post 2000.  Unless you spend a lot of time out in the sun, facing the sun and talking to someone standing between you and the sun you don't see this effect very often in real life.  But if you look at the endless photo streams (mostly of scantily clad young woman) you'd think the sun sets continually, right over the little wannabe vixens' head and right into your camera lens.  In a word this lighting effect is like the word, "dude".  It is so overused that only "lame" neophytes still use it on purpose.  I'm calling for a world wide ban on gratuitous rim lighting!  And over the top hair lights.

Second.  I know David Hobby put his finger right on the pulse of photography in 2007 when his blog, Strobist.com, identified the style of using small, battery operated lights in lieu of bigger "plug in the wall" lights to do many routine photos.  His blog is really great and it's helped many a photographer gain a degree of competence they otherwise would not have had.  My book, Minimalist Lighting:  Professional Techniques on Location certainly benefitted from the the surge of popularity but, enough is enough!  Not every photo needs a flash in mandatory attendance.  Not every photo benefits from "just a little bit of fill",  "just a little bit of rim lighting...."  In fact, half the images I see on the Flickr photostreams would benefit from a lot less lighting and more attention being paid to the light God already conjured up for the taking.

By the same token,  not every scene can be lit only with the little dinky light poppers.  On a fast paced commercial shoot you'd go nuts waiting for the little darlings to recycle.  Especially if your set and client calls for the high production quality of low ISO's and smaller f-stops.  If you expect a shoot to progress at a good pace, provide enough juice to slam out f 11 several hundred times, etc. you'll want something that plugs in the wall and goes, "pop, pop, pop" without overheating or giving you variable exposures.  OMG, there might actually be a reason why all those pros use big heavy equipment-------beyond the cool logos on the product!!!

It's one of those "right tool for the right job" things.  Like using a truck to haul a bunch of cinder blocks instead of the back seat of your Prius......  Like bringing a bigger gun to a knife fight.  Or some silly metaphor meant to illustrate the advantages of correct gear choice.

While I'm ranting about equipment I'm going to throw this one into the mix:  Everyone who is not working for clients who routinely use images in large, glossy print publications or displays and who is constantly buying new and improved digital cameras is being played for a chump.  Before you spend another cent on new cameras do this experiment:  Take 20,000 of your images from the last 10 years of digital shooting, shove them all into Lightroom and start looking at them on a 30 inch, calibrated monitor.  Here's what I found:  Cameras improved relentlessly until they hit six megapixels around 2002.  At that point any improvement of the images used at under 8x10 @ 300 dpi is invisible.  My Nikon D100,  D1X and Kodak DCS 760, when used at their base ISO's are equal to any Canon or Nikon camera currently on the market.

I can't argue for a second that the newer cameras are not much better at higher ISO's than the ones I've listed but from a professional point of view I find the high ISO performance meaningless in most of the applications where we make most of our money.  Your mileage may vary according to your specialty.  For a studio portrait photographer I can count on my fingers the number of times I've needed to turn off the studio lights, put down the external light meter and use ISO 3200.  Just doesn't happen.  

And there is no real link between price and quality.  Not anymore.  I find the quality of the files from my Sony R1's equal to the files of the D700 at the native ISO's of each camera.  But more importantly is how well they print.  Most stuff looks interesting on the screen but the real test is how it handles paper.  And vice versa.  Wanna improve your digital photography?  Use a tripod.  Use the optimum apertures of your prime lenses.  Work on finding more interesting subject matter.  But exhaust all other avenues before you feel like you need to pony up for the new uber camera.

Final rant:  If you are a runner have you ever really wanted to run on a bright sunny afternoon and you headed to a hiking trail in your city to burn some energy only to be confronted by hordes of amateur trail users who walk with strollers in groups that span the whole pathway?  What the hell is wrong with these people.  When they drive in their cars they are required to drive up one side of the road and down the other.  Why do they become so mentally challenged when confronted with a hiking trails.  Let's get some traffic control people out there ticketing these idiots so that people who want to run can do so in appropriate traffic patterns.  Darn, that is so aggravating.


My Two Favorite Digital Cameras of All Time.

There's cameras and then there's cameras.  I've got plenty of the first kind.  They're "state of the art" pieces of industrial efficiency.  Cameras like the Nikon D300 and the D700.  I've owned most of the Nikon professional series bodies, starting with the D1, continuing through the D2x.  But along the way I've found that there's a difference between a camera with good specifications and reliable performance, and a camera that's fun to hold and fun to use.  I like the files I get from the Fuji S5 but for some reason it's just no fun to use.  Same with the Canon G10.  I really want to like it but it's more like a nice radio than a good camera.

So why do good cameras fail the warm and cuddly test?  The D700 is a much less inviting camera to use than the almost identical D300.  It's bigger shutter is much louder and has a flat, robotic sound.  The D300 has a shutter sound that's like a gradual growl.  It sounds more intuitive.  I know that seems crazy but that's the best way to describe it.  The Fuji S5 seems physically disconnected from the user.  I push the button and something happens but I don't know when or how.  It's like driving by wire.  Or those lenses on the early Olympus cameras and the original Canon 85mm 1.2 L lens that translated the movement of a turn of the focus ring into an electrical signal that made a motor move the focusing elements.  It hesitated and then overshot.  Both the D700 and the D3 feel reliable and accurate but very soulless compared to previous Nikons.

What makes a camera fun?  It's has personality.  It should have a few quirks that make it interesting.  And it should make you a better photographer.  In much the way that a Leica rangefinder became a transparent conduit for images while my Contax RTS camera felt like an unbalanced hammer in my hand.  Here are two of my favorite digital cameras of all time:

First,  the Kodak DCS 760.  It's a big goofy thing that endears itself to the user by it's protective "older brother" feel.  You know it's going to work.  You know the metering will be solid.  You know the autofocus will be quick in a way that the new generation of cameras is not.  It feels right in any size hand.  The finder is so good you'll tear up when you look through it.  But mostly there is an emotional reaction to a camera the bridges the best of the digital age with the nostalgia of the film age.  The DCS 760 has crappy performance at any ISO above 125.  Some would say above 80......  Don't ever think about using it for a long exposure.  Nightmare pixel fireworks.  But in the hand with a 180mm at an outdoor swim meet.  Heaven.  Absolute heaven. No wonder that they become harder and harder to find and hold their value better than the other cameras that came out in the same time frame.

The ulitmate way to enjoy a DCS 760?  Tethered to a big monitor on a computer running the Kodak tethering software.  It's so great.  And the software was so good.  Nikon has just now caught up.  Barely.

The second camera?  From around 2003.  The Olympus E1.  Wow, I wish the files were wonderful because the camera is addictive.  Small, agile and sensitive.  Small and well integrated controls.  The most deliciously quiet mirror and shutter mechanism ever put into an SLR.  I've pulled it out of the drawer and started using it again in the hopes that Capture One will turn the so-so ISO 400 raw files into gems.  But really, this is the camera body design and implementation that everyone should have rushed to copy.  It sublimates the "computer-ness of shooting with a digital camera and makes it as transparent to shoot as a Leica.  An added and back handed compliment to the camera:  The tiny, horrible screen on the back keeps you from chimping which helps keep the mind on what's happening in front of the camera.........

The E-1 is quiet, understated and gives you access to some really cool lenses, including some made by Leica.  The camera is weather sealed and very robust.  I like to equip mine with the LiPo battery pack because it adds a bigger grip and a second shutter release button.  Not to mention giving me thousands of shots before recharging.

These are two of my all time digital faves.  You can always pick one up cheap.  Beware the Kodak batteries.  Better to use that big beast with an external battery pack or plugged right into the wall!!!


Writing a Book in the age of instant access.

Many of you know that I wrote a book last year on the phenomenon of small strobe lighting, as exemplified by David Hobby's blog, http://www.strobist.com .  The book is entitled, Minimalist Lighting:  Professional Techniques for Location Photography.  The book struck a nerve with two separate groups.  One group was the Strobist population which is largely self-taught and looks to various web gurus for more information and tutoring about things photographic.  Surprisingly, the other group is established photographers who have been in the game for over twenty years and who needed a push to change from the way they had done things to a new way that reflected the reduced indulgence of time and budget supplied by the new clients.

I'm glad the book has sold well and the feedback that I've gotten from readers is little short of a college education in the desires of the market.  But the real reason for this short column is to discuss how  I know what the market is thinking.....

Here's how I understood the publishing business in the past (read that to mean:  pre- internet):
The author writes a book and submits it to a publisher.  The publisher and writer come to an agreement of terms and the publisher edits the book.  The book is produced and marketed through a small web of interconnected distributors.  The book becomes available in book stores and in shops dealing with the specialty encompassed within the book.

Once a customer had purchased a book he had a very limited ability to give feedback.  His recourse was to write a letter to the editor or to the publisher.  He could also address a letter to the author, "care of" the publisher.  His address wasn't printed in the book, nor was his home telephone number listed anywhere on the printed product.  The letters were read by a secretary and passed along to the proper channel or into a circular file.

As an English major from a previous generation, this is what I understood to be standard practice and I didn't pay attention to the changes through the years until I had a personal stake in the game.  Now I have been tossed into the cold water of present day and have come fully awake to the new rules.

From the first day of publishing I started getting e-mails from places like Australia and Russia. Nearly all of them were polite and complimentary.  Most wanted to point out a typing mistake or bring my attention to a misapplied caption.  A few questioned my choice in one or another particular of gear selection.  And many wanted to know if the yellow "splotch" on the chapter pages was a printing mistake or an intentional addition.  (It was an intentional design element, honest).  Three or four people took me to task for things mundane (selection of type style) and things bizarre (why didn't I mention a certain brand of light stand).

E-mail made it easy to access me.  It made sharing opinions easy and it made sharing easy.  Then the really weird stuff started to happen.  I started getting e-mails asking for payment to write reviews about the book on Amazon.com (which I did not accept!!!!) and I started getting unsolicited ideas for incredibly impractical products, as if I had some connection to a giant photo gadget making company.  I also recieved one "hate" e-mail taking me to task for "destroying the high end photography market" by making "cheap crap" acceptable as professional tools (as if I had that much power).

But the really nice thing that happened was the extension of the original feedback loop that gave me really tremendous insight as to what most book buyers really wanted to see in a second book.  Turns out that "how well the book reads" is almost important as the content to some.  That preference by many of the reader/responders to the first book almost make me want to write a series of novels about the photography business.  The next thing they want is good, solid general instruction that they can overlay onto projects the readers are attempting.  Most said that straightforward examples that clearly show what can be done with modest gear easily trump more flashy examples that require dozens of fixtures and a crew of assistants and super models.

Finally,  I sense that they want to trust the writer and are more comfortable if the writer is an active participant of a bigger community of like-minded people.  They were proud that my book came out of my participation in the Strobist and Flickr communities.  Many were surprised and pleased to get a personal response.  But it felt so natural to do so.  I feel like I am nestled in part of a big Bell Curve in which we all give and take.  And the accessibility is all part of the organic mix.  I'm proud I was there before I wrote the book and I'm proud that I'm still there adding in my two cents worth.

When I saw how accessible my writing persona could be it triggered something in my mind.  I wanted to contact two writers who's work I really enjoy and give them both messages.  I wrote to Steven Pressfield, the wonderful novelist who gave us, The Gates of Fire and The Legend of Bagger Vance (among other great books).  I wanted to personally thank him for a little book called, The War of Art, which helped to cure my anxiety and dissolve my procrastination.  To my surprise, he e-mailed me the following morning with a wonderful message which I printed out and keep at my desk.

I also wanted to reach out to Jeff Abbott, a writer of exciting suspense novels, to let him know how much I enjoy his work.  He was also quick to personally respond which cemented my fan mentality where both of these writers are concerned.  

But more importantly these interactions convinced me that we work best in an informed feedback loop that constantly refines and corrects our messages and makes them both more rewarding to deliver and more digestible to receive.  I'm not sure why I'm sitting here writing this instead of doing the taxes, calling clients or trying to do some photographic work, but I know at some level I really want to thank everyone for the time they took to tell me where I slipped, pat me on the back for the stuff I did right/write and give me the energy to keep pursuing my writing about photography.

Thank you very much!  It's nice to be connected.


Coming to grips with the changing landscape.

Let's face it.  If you started taking photographs twenty or thirty years ago you developed a "muscle memory" for film cameras.  You learn to assess the health of your camera batteries by the sound pitch of your motor drive.  You learned that your potential for shooting a number of photographs was constrained by your supply of film and you learned that the post processing required would also limit what you "should" shoot if you were to also have a life outside the darkroom or away from the lab that processed your color film.

Beyond that you also learned what worked in marketing by the same kind of practice.  The marketing tool of the time was print.  People saw your work in print.  Whether is was in a magazine, accompanied with a byline or credit or on a postcard that you had printed and sent through the mail.  You were constrained to edit your mailing list judiciously because each card mailed represented printing costs and postage in addition to your active participation in labeling, stamping, sorting and sending.  

Few were wealthy enough to be as promiscuous as even the least financially capable beginner, e-mailing with gusto, these days.  In many, many ways digital imaging, and the web, have flattened the playing field for professional photographers.  Or so it would seem.

There are advantages to the old ways and there are advantages to the new world of existing and marketing as image makers.

The Visual Science Lab research (data free....) finds that, while e-mails work in some instances, there is still more power in a finely crafted, physical direct mailing.  In a way it's like the difference between fly fishing and net fishing.  And therein lies the dissonance for old timers.
While a fly fisher generally brings up a nicer fish, with more weight, the net fisher brings up more quantity.  The fly fisher might land a juicy trout while the net operator brings up a large bucket of sardines.

We can argue that we'd rather eat the trout, and that fly fishing is a much more enjoyable diversion but the reality is blurred.  At some point quantity will trump quality.  The net fisher will, perhaps, have more financial success.  But only if they have a ready distribution network and an efficient way to process and ship their bounty.

The net fisher looks at the fly fisher in his waders, whiling away a bright summer day, half submerged in a cool stream and wishes that were his lot while the fly fisher, does not envy the network process but lusts after the raw income.

It's the same in the business of photography.  I have one friend who does three or four big advertising assignments per year.  He doesn't want to work every day.  In his little corner of the industry that would be impractical.  He sees himself as a whaler.  He sails through the deep oceans looking for the "great white whale".  And if he lands one he's set for months at a time.

At the other end of the spectrum are photographers who need a constant stream of small sales to survive from week to week.  They are busy all the time, but not on the kinds of projects that initially attracted them to the field.  They compete against an ocean of unremarkable but "bucket cheap" stock photography.

I was complaining about this dichotomy last week to a friend who isn't a photographer.  He makes money with a traditional. professional business.  He suggested that both participants I've described above might be misguided.  He said he aims for the middle way.  Happy to go whaling, fly fishing or anchovy harvesting depending on what's biting.

Knowing that he has more money in his Christmas account than I've seen in my lifetime I quickly asked for his advice.  Here it is:

1.  Plan for the long term but be flexible enough to modify for the present.   You may want to go fly fishing but the stream might be closed right now and it's good to know how to net fish.....
2.  Don't abandon old, proven marketing techniques (he still sends targeted mailings and correspondence through the mail to his clients and select, potential clients).  Most of them still work well.  New is not always better.
3.  Don't be afraid of new marketing opportunities.  This guy has a Twitter account.  I was amazed.  Just because your current marketing is working okay doesn't mean the addition of new tools wouldn't make things better.
4.  Don't stop whaling just because there was a storm.  He likens our whaling analogy to, well, whaling.  He said most failed whalers came in from the seas because a big storm was brewing and they forgot to go back out when the storm abated.  For photographers the big jobs and sexy accounts will come back with a pent up vengence as soon as the economic mess subsides.  If you've already put all your guns into net fishing you might be loath to return to the whaling ship and you'll miss out on the next big time harvest while you work full out on small fish.
5.  When you hit big save as much as you can.  

His last piece of advice was to stop fishing and get back to work doing what you know how to do in the most profitable way.  You must beat your own inertia if you are to make it to the next higher level.

So what does this have to do with old timers and new photographers?  Not much, other than I think the most important thing you can learn is if you are even fishing in the right pool.

Take a trip to the ocean.  Look at the pond in your backyard.  Don't limit your options but don't let your selected options slow you down.  Have a twitter account and an "A" mailing list to whom you send printed materials.  You're allowed to do it both ways.