Cheap Camera in the service of commercial art.

Every year I work on an annual report project for the Kipp Schools in Austin. These schools do a great job providing a solid path to college for underserved kids. The schools are tough. Discipline is pervasive. Achievement is rewarded. It's rewarding to be a small part of the process.

This year I worked with art director, Gretchen Hicks, from Sherry Matthews Advocacy to create a brochure that evokes the feel of an old Farmer's Almanac. The emphasis on nurturing and growth echoed the philosophy of the schools.

Enough about schools. The reason to be here is the photography. And that was my responsibility. I set up the shoot in an empty classroom. The main light was an 84 inch Lastolite Umbrella with a built in front diffuser panel. The passive fill came from a 48 inch white Chimera panel, opposite the big umbrella. As you can probably tell, I used the panel fill panel pretty far away from the subject because I like my shadows to have some weight and depth to them.

There is a tiny kick of light on the gray background. It comes from an old Metz 54 battery powered flash, used in manual on a low power setting, in a small 12x16 inch soft box. I just used it for a bit of separation.

My intention was always to deliver black and white images and I decided to shoot the whole project with a shiny, new Nikon D700. When I intend to deliver B&W I like to set the camera to monochrome so I can "previsualize" what the images will look like in their final form. I started shooting with the D700 and a 105 f2 DC lens but I just couldn't get comfortable with the images. The picture on the rear LCD just didn't have the right feel and the right tones. In short, I didn't like the way the Nikon created black and whites for display to the LCD's. The images were......mushy.

I remembered that I like the way an old Sony point and shoot camera, the R1, handled monochromes so I pulled my surviving R1 out of the bag and started shooting. Now I would have to make a choice: The camera shoots one raw every eight to ten seconds and that was just too slow. If I switched to Jpeg I could shoot fast enough but I would have to trust the camera's interpretation of black and white because I wouldn't have the post processing control of a raw file.

I went with the monochrome Jpegs. I figured that if I really screwed up I could always come back and spend another day doing the job over again. The deadline was not too pressing.

We shot all day long. It was kind of a miracle, but we got 1200 exposures out of one camera battery and one set of background flash batteries. (The mainlight was an A/C monolight).

I love the images I got from the shoot. There is a very tiny gallery here.

I sure like the images but even more I really like what Gretchen did with the whole print project. In these days of ubiquitous web projects it's really nice to see some ink on paper done well. I went to a reception at the home of a wealthy donor and the brochures were passed out. It was gratifying to see the response they got.

It reminded me that print is not totally dead. That good projects can survive. That photography is very important. That art directors don't give a crap about which camera you use or how large a file you deliver. As long as you capture something worth using.

Technical skill is always way down the ladder on jobs like this. Any professional should be able to do a decent job lighting a shot like these. The real test is being able to establish a nice rapport, a nice give and take with each kid. And sustain that over twenty or thirty kids in a day.
We ended up shooting 10 meg jpegs. In monochrome. All of which were originally conceived as horizontals. What you see in the final 8.5 by 11 inch brochure are verticals. Maybe three megapixels worth of data. If that.

Technically about as non optimal as it gets. So why does everyone who see the project love it so much? Because the content always trumps the technique. No one really cares about technical perfection if the emotion isn't there.

I write a lot about doing projects with less than optimal gear and I worry that I'm sending the wrong message. I'm not trying to say that people shouldn't shoot with incredibly fun and expensive cameras. And I'm not saying that having nearly infinite megapixels at your disposal is a bad thing. Not at all. But I think there is a pervasive sentiment throughout the field of photography that, in order to do good, sellable work, you must have the latest, most powerful, most able equipment in order to succeed.

There is another myth that seems to say that you, as a photographer, are constantly being judged by your client with one metric: Do you have the coolest gear? And what I've found, consistently, over the years is that the only people who care about gear are photographers and other photographers.

We men tend to be pretty simple and linear in our understanding of technology. We always tend to think that more is more and less is less. We judge cars by how fast they go. How quickly they accelerate. How many G's they can pull in a turn. We rank cars from best to worst based largely on performance metrics. And yet most cars can do the job.

For commuting and family vacations and running to the mall and the camera store and the grocery store just about any car will do fine. Where will you see the difference between a regular car (honda civic, hyundai, toyota) and the Porsches, Aston Martins and Ferraris? On a race track at speeds over 100 mph. How often do you drive on the track? How often do you find yourself commuting at 150 mph? Taken a cloverleaf at 90 lately?

I mentioned that the market seems to be going to the web and that all the very best video systems can handle right now is the equivalent of a 2 to 3 megapixel camera's output. Several readers rebutted by saying that computer screens and video will get better and better with technology. Sorry friends, but we've only changed our video broadcast standards once in 50 years and we probably won't change your television requirements again for a good while. It's true that computer screens will get better and better but at the same time the growth market is in netbooks with 10 inch screens and in mobile applications that will never exceed the size of a pocket.

With decent LCD projectors still in the $5000 range for anything remotely hi res I think it will be a good long while before we come close to needing the kind of resolution that even 35mm slide film gave us in projection.

The real metric should be how comfortable you are using the gear and how comfortable you are interfacing with the subjects on the other side of the camera. I don't do much landscape. I find people more interesting. I always remember what a producer on a reality TV show once told me. "People don't care is the picture is dark, or fuzzy or grainy as long as the action is exciting and the sound is perfect."

And I always remind myself that Robert Frank's images in "The Americans" wouldn't be any more powerful if they were grainless and tack sharp. In fact, I think it would destroy them.


Pete Appleby said...

Hi, Kirk. Once again, I'm nodding in agreement about many of your points.

Technical skills and the latest + greatest gear are not the be-all, end-all. The photographs must convey the message, the content has emotion. Does a minor technical flaw take away from the message? Usually only for us photographers, we are our own worst critics.

I've often thought about your analogy if the car with respect to camera gear. I once owned a limited edition performance pickup truck with a V-10, special transmission, suspension, etc. It was very fast, handled extremely well, and could do over 150 mph. It was fun for a while, but I traded it in on something more practical after a couple of years. The lesson learned was that I was better off with something more suited to my needs.

The same lesson applies to gear for camera, computers, motorcycles, 4x4s, etc. When I read the forum discussions, I often find very passionate debates by enthusiastic folks that seem to be splitting hairs or arguing about individual preferences. Your use of the R1 meet your need at that time. You, the art director, and the end users are happy with the result. Thats the bottom line!

The gear was the tool, not the creative energy. My opinion is that the results are very nice, seems to me the result has hit the mark!

Spiny Norman said...

What you are saying about resolution is so obviously true that even Canon and Nikon get it. Their top new PJ/sports cameras are in 12 and 16 mpix respectively, and Canon justifies 16 mpix by arguing explicitly that the extra pixels are so that one can get a vertical crop from a horizontal. In other words, even Canon now implicitly admit that 5-7 mpix is all one should need for print journalism, even for magazines. If, then, one does not need clean ISO 3200, the sensor battles are - as you've been arguing - more or less over for most practical photography.

DevKom said...

Nicely done, kudos all 'round.
I do take (a little) exception to calling the Sony R1
(if indeed you refer to the same model I am using)
a point and shoot camera. With a DSLR sized sensor
and that big magic T* Zeiss glass up front, it is anything but.
If anything, I think of it as an artist's camera.
It is slow as molasses compared to any recent P&S
and a pain to use in low light - but has never disappointed where it counts: the images hold up very well indeed.

kirk tuck said...

I should quickly point out, in case any of my more linear clients are reading, that I do have a drawer full of high resolutions cameras that I can draw on with some very nice optics. We also have a number of suppliers who rent amazingly expensive medium format digital systems if we need to go resolution+bit depth crazy. And I've used most of them.

If you really need an interesting, high definition look we still have the complete Rolleiflex 6008i system with those darling Zeiss lenses and an almost endless supply of film.

But really, I think we'll do just fine with the 12 megapixel stuff....

Ray K said...

What I'm hearing again is: Content, connection and creativity will always beat equipment. Keep saying it loud and clear Kirk and we will see beter images for the lesson from all of us.
So true about the images for web and even the print work is getting smaller sized. Video from an HD after conversion for web output is hard to tell from SD except for the aspect ratio. Tech may catch up but will the delivery system over the net? not for a while I think and who can tell the difference on a mobile platform. Besides if they are talking about how it was shot they aren't talking about the content/message and I don't think that is what my clients wanted to happen.

Marshall said...

This reminded me that (and I might as well admit to being an amateur...) the only national cover I've thus far ever shot was a vertical crop of a horizontal frame. Not sure if I was fooling myself into believing I could see it - just barely - in the print. It was a sports shot, and speed in the camera mattered to get it, but we lived without all of the resolution.

Anonymous said...

I've found that people who point out the quality of the latest cameras, as the de rigeur standard for pros, seem to fail to realize the basic point you have made about the MARKETPLACE. Sure, the photo enthusiast with the D700 or 5DMkII can point out how, on his 22" high end, calibraed monitor there are obvious differences in image quality compared to shots taken with something like an E-1 or your venerable R-1. Meanwhile, 90% of people out there are looking at images on smaller, less expensive, uncalibrated monitors. Pixel peepers need to realize they make up perhaps 5%, at most, of actual camera owners, and a much smaller percentage of real people. Snobbery about gear doesn't create images which can be used successfully by clients. Creativity, rapport and understanding the most cost-effective way to meet a clients need do.

Nalax said...

True. We could all live in one room studio apartments and commute to work in Smart cars to work in 8x8' cubicles.
But we don't. We'll continue to lust over that rare Lambo' we see once a year and work harder to get that bigger house that the wife wants.
Photography has been changing, not completely for the better, but hopefully we can retain our human uniqueness of our own thinking as an individual to perhaps take a image that is different from Kirk, Robert Frank or whomever.

John said...

My favorite thing about the photos are the poses and expressions. So perfect for the intent of the piece. Truly great work Kirk.

Bob said...

It's the indian not the arrow. Maybe not politically correct, but one of my favorite sayings that seems so appropriate with cameras and other tools.

I've had people comment on a few of my photos (web, not printed) and ask me what kind of camera do I use. I alway enjoy it when I can respond that I have a Nikon DSL but that actually the photo that they asked about was taken with a camera phone (iPhone).

By the way Kirk, I always enjoy your blog, the great photos and inspiration.