Minimalist Lighting. Meet Minimalist Camera.

chef Emmett at Asti., originally uploaded by kirkinaustin.

Blogs, by their very nature are the process of thinking out loud in front of the whole world. Lately it seems like my posts are aimed at re-inventing the world of commercial photography. Or at least stirring up some controversy. But I'm not that profound or devious. I am just trying to work out a way for photography to be as fun and carefree for me as it was when I started this journey so many years ago. Before the gear became all consuming.

So I'll back up for a paragraph. I shot this image on a D2x with the original, old 35mm PC lens, using four Nikon SB flashes controlled by an SU-800 Controller. I was working on my first book: Minimalist LIghting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography, and I wanted to shoot the kind of image we've provided editorial clients with for years. But all the stuff in my files was done with monolights or pack and head strobe systems and I thought it would be misleading to include the shots given the nature of the book.

I'd done a ten or so images, both for advertising and for editorial that I'd used the small flashes on but I wanted to do something that wasn't tied to an art director or a campaign so I called my friend Emmett Fox (perhaps the finest chef working in Austin...) and arranged to drop by Asti restaurant and do a few images.

I've used the image both in the book and in my portfolio to good effect. The response to the whole idea of simplifying the lighting (and carrying around a lot less stuff) was at first a frightening concept to some of the professional photographers I spoke to. They seemed to think that making what we do seem easier would confuse clients and cause them to re-think the whole idea of "professional photography".

Now, almost three years later, everyone regards these techniques as "old hat" and they are fully accepted by both clients and photographers. Scary at first but then, with application and good results, much less scary.

I worked on a job as a people shooter next to a world class architectural shooter during this evolution. Just one or two years earlier he would have shot his architectural shots with a 4x5 view camera and a case of Dedolights. Two years ago he bought a Canon 5D (the original) and substituted it to good effect in place of the 4x5. As he became more at ease with the newer, faster, lighter, camera he also started to experiment with several of Canon's top line speedlights. Revelation: He could work to the same high quality with much more flexibility, require less assistance, cover more ground and be less worn by the end of the day. The increased depth of field vis a vis 35mm frame factor versus large format was a big plus for him and the increased DOF leveraged the power of the battery operated strobes in a good way.

Now the fear is gone and said architectural shooter is happily banging away with his digital camera and, usually, a small bag full of Canon EX 5xx flashes with radio slave or optical triggers. When I worked with him he had become fluid with the new techniques.

Did his clients run screaming from the room and beg him to return to the days of transparency film? No. Did they beg him to drag around hot lights and C-stands and an army of assistants? No. And most importantly, did they expect him to reduce his fees? No.

His work still graces the pages of the same magazines and promotional materials for national architectural firms. How can that be? Don't they need the cropping safety that's ensured by the bigger film? Don't they need the assurance that future media will be well served?

Apparently not. No, the clients are happy that the spaces need not be closed off for longer periods of time. That more can be done in the same amount of time. That the cost of 4x5 film and Polaroid has been eliminated (but partially replaced by post processing.....).

All in all, the photographer is happy and productive. The clients feel that the transition is either seamless or perhaps less difficult. And the product, the image, still splashes across the pages with authority. Whether those pages are in magazine or on the web. It helps that the photographer in question sees his the value of his work as the same and his charges incorporate the concept of charging for usage....

So, when I started talking about using smaller, less expensive cameras to do my work I was really starting a new cycle of thought for myself. What if I could do the same quality of final product with less cumbersome gear? I'd done it with the flashes. It worked. The book worked. A couple hundred thousand people visiting Strobist.com can attest that the new paradigm of lighting works for most common subjects. So why is it so scary when it comes to cameras?

If it's more comfortable you could define the whole movement to Minimalist Cameras as a new style. Like the people who shoot with Holgas, or Lomos, or with Lens Babies.

IMPORTANT CAVEAT: If you shoot for large scale print production this is not aimed at you. There are still many applications where megapixels and tight control and super high ISO performance are needed. And I get that. I really do. I still have some medium format tools in the equipment drawer. I'm not saying that everything is binary and can only be done in one way. I'm not trying to force anyone to pry their fingers off a much beloved !DSmk3 or Nikon D3x.

But I will say this, I think much creative photography can be done with little bitty cameras like the Canon G10 and G11. Not just done, but done well. Done in a way that diminishes the importance of technical in the service of answering the gestalt. A rejection of structuralism. A holistic approach in which the sum is greater than the parts.

I'm embarking on a little experiment. You know those jobs you sometimes get where you have a shot list and a budget and the time to work out details? I'm going to see how many of them I can do in the next six months with a Canon G10 or G11. I've already started.

Most of the jobs I'm talking about are headed for the web or for a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation. Some will be headed for smaller brochures and magazines. A little direct mail. But some will be headed for traditional print. I'm not out to trick my clients. I'll discuss the options and the techniques and the ones who trust me will let me try new stuff while the less adventurous will always have the option to go retro.

I may fall flat on my face and have clients screaming and yelling, but I don't think so. I think that, if the final output is sharp, detailed, color correct and creative no one will give a rat's butt which camera generated it. The lights were the first step.

Why would I do this? Well I recently curled up with an old copy of Robert Frank's, The Americans. He shot the photos in the book with a small screw mount Leica and a handful of lenses that are primitive compared to what we have today. He shot the images for the book on slow (ISO 100 and ISO 200) black and white film stock. Not everything is sharp. Nothing is "Image Stabilized". And yet the images have incredible power. And keep in mind that back in the 1950's the 8x10 view camera was the de facto choice of "real" professional photographers. 4x5 was the economy format and medium format was for quick snapshots. Handheld 35mm cameras were held in almost universal disdain.

I don't want anyone to think that I'm doing this because I am new to the professional and don't get the whole idea of quality. I remember shooting some of the original PR photos of Texas Monthly Magazine's publisher, Mike Levy, with a 4x5 view camera back in 1979. I've paid my dues processing thousands of pieces of Tri-X and FP-4. And even more medium format film.

But what if I can get images that I like, and which my clients like, with a smaller camera? Wouldn't it be silly not to try it?

At some point we've all mouthed the words, "It's not the camera, it's the person behind the camera that counts." Let's see if that's true. I may not be up to the creative task but let's not blame the cameras for that.



\`1nc3nt said...

I like your posting Kirk.
Everything is in the brain, can't agree more.

The reason I am still using D-SLR because somehow I think images should last forever and there is the only purpose to keep it in large digital format.

6p0120a5d3a2ed970b said...

I am quite interested in reading the results of this experiment. In particular, do clients perceive you as less professional when using a camera closer in size than a P&S. Is there a size threshold below which the client starts thinking "Hey! I own a camera like that!" and associates smallness with abilities.

I am in full agreement though about using the simplest approach when solving a problem. Simplicity, many times, helps creativity by permitting the mind to focus on only what is important.

Matthew Kennedy said...

nice article and good points. Have you been catching a little heat from people over the Oly switch? Here is a fun test between the G10 and a Hassy H2 with a Phase One P45+. The results are pretty cool. http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/kidding.shtml

kirk tuck said...

I live in Austin, Texas. The heartland of early adopter and the "deep of wallet." Most of my clients in the medical field have D3's and 1DS mk3's. Lots of the art directors I work with are shooting with 5D's or the equivilent for their personal work. I think they are immune to the "my gear is better than yours.." syndrome.

I think they/we are all in pursuit of an image that differentiates our campaign from the hordes of 5D2, D700 wielding, homogenized practitioners.....If smaller is worse, and worse is different, and different is better....where does it all end up?

kirk tuck said...

Matthew, thanks for reminding me about MR's article. Everyone should go there and read it before they post some scathing critique here.......Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I would say that this rant is rather insane if I hadn't just picked up a G11 and found it to be a really magnificent camera with great image quality. Much better than the 35mm film cameras and film I used in the past. Way to go, Tuck. Keep it coming. Of course, if the economy recovers quickly you may end up eating your words. You are widely known as a "gear afficiando".........

John Ricard said...

I think the "minimalist" movement for camera will work when someone designs a body where the only controls on the camera are the ones you actually need. The Leica M9 is one such example of a minimalist camera that gets it right -but since it is a rangefinder it will only have limited appeal.

The issue that is missing from your post Kirk, is that it is easier to use my Nikon D3 than it is to use my Canon G10. I shot a Britney Spears concert on my G10 (http://www.johnricardblog.com/2009/10/britney-spears-performs-at-madison.html) and for most of the concert the camera was stuck in some odd "zoom" review mode instead of the normal review mode. I also couldn't figure out how to put the camera in a continous mode where it would shoot several images in a row without reviewing any of them. The menu and control system of the G10 is very confusing.

When someone designs a minimalist camera that has minimal buttons and minimal features...then the minimalist camera movement might really take off.

(Of course when the camera makers do design the minimalist camera, all the buyers will be saying, "Why doesn't it have live view?" Or, "Why doesn't it have a Portrait mode?", etc.)

Anonymous said...

It's a bit frustrating to think that you have to go out of your way to qualify your point. The "Chicken Little" mentality to photo gear has been around for a while, but doesn't seem to be the concern of the most experienced and creative professionals I've known or read about.

Also, I believe that some people simply fail to recognize the historical facts you mention. The same early 35mm Leicas that are considered legendary classics were scoffed at when first introduced.

Your tale of your architectural photography friend will likely be taken the wrong way by some. They will assume that saying the 5D gives satisfactory results is "proof" that photographers should go with FF dslrs: anything less doesn't cut it.

I really wonder how many so-called pros really consider whether their demands for "the highest quality images" are truly based on client expectations,(as well as work efficiency and just plain enjoying the job) or are merely their own way of justifying gear lust?

david chua said...

The undeniable fact of everything commercial in life is when something gets easier and is as profitable, everyone swarms at it and wanna attempt it. Digital photography today has gone so easy and smaller cameras are performing so well that they pass the standards of most clients paying us. It would come a time that many more photographers do the same, which is, using minimal equipment to achieve a similar result and when that happens, clients have more choices of photographers to choose from. Common sense says that when one has a couple of photographers who can achieve similar results to choose from, it boils down to pricing and relationship. I personally don't think photography pricing can reach sky high like it used to be in the old film days, but instead, it should drop to an ultimate baseline.

Mandáš said...

Kirk, your line of thought is a real mind-blower, for me at leas.. since i discovered by chance this blog of yours, many things which i was mumbling inside my little brain - well, at the back of it, really - at last had a name. You helped me clarify the concepts. I agree in principle and in purpose whith your idea, without a hint of a doubt for artistic photography, but certainly also for commercial works. A lot can be done with less, and that is already more than most clients will ever appreciate, or at least be willing to transform in more dolalrs in the final invoice.
The other big point is that you voiced clearly what had been for me an unspoken truth, which i had experienced many times: the more gear you have , the more the creative mind is slowed down, sometimes to a halt. Less gear is more ideas.

David Watson said...

I wonder if you would include the new Canon S90 for the purpose that you describe? I've been watching the development of these new larger sensor, smaller size cameras with an eye toward portability without sacrificing quality. I have an Olympus E-500 that works well but I can't imagine running with it. I understand Galen Rowell was known for carrying an SLR through all manner of mountainous gymnastics, but I'm not sure I'm cut from the same stone. :-/

kirk tuck said...

Mandas, The more stuff you put in your backpack the harder it is to climb a mountain. The trick is packing just enough.......

David Ingram said...

Hi Kirk, great post! I have a d300 and a canon g9. I am a large guy and find holding a larger slr more comfortable in my hands than a little point and shoot. Buttons are more accessible and more control. The other thing is the shutter delay on the g9 bugs me. Have the g10 or g11 improved this shutter lag issue?

kirk tuck said...

David, I"ve been doing a lot of shooting with the G11. I think it's a bit faster than the G10 but I'll know more after I do some street shooting in San Antonio this weekend. Thanks for the Thumbs Up on the posts.

Kurt Schlatzer said...

I'm really looking forward to seeing the work you produce with the G10/11. I bought a G10 for my wife last year and I've fallen for it's simplicity -and size. Of course, convincing her that I actually bought it for her has been a bit of a challenge lately ;-)

Jim said...

Kirk...if you haven't already done so, do get your hands on the Panasonic GF1. It has all the controls you need at your finger tips...not buried in menus.

With the optional viewfinder attached it really works well. I'm still experimenting with mine but I'm already sure it's a keeper.

John said...

I agree totally. I think the digital age and the never ending quest for bigger, faster, and more powerful camera bodies has blinded a lot of us to the central fact of photography; content trumps form. We've become pixel peepers and expect that we can take a photo of mediocre subject matter and by manipulation turn it into something better.

The digital age has made a lot of us believe that we have finally leveled the playing field with the pros and can turn out images that are just as good as what they produce, if only we keep filling up those huge GB cards. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw wasn't so far off the mark when he made his analogy between a photographer and a cod (or was it a flounder?).

RAZR2 V8 said...

I wish I had a digital back for my Contax IIIa. I even love the weight of that machine. And no menus.

Gene Trent said...

As always I am loving your comments! I am one that has believed and lived this "minimalist" concept for a while now. I remember the "old" guys too and look at their work and remember the cameras they used. The work they produced is now considered "classic". The equipment and processes would probably be considered archaic by today's standards but it worked. I still have my photography school camera from 1972 and if I shot film it would produce images just fine.

I have a friend with whom I shoot occasionally. He has a photog pack that weights about 50 - 75 pounds and I usually go with one camera and MAYBE two lenses. He gets good shots and so do I. But he is a lot more fatigued at the end of the shoot than I am. To each his / her own. Whatever works but I am going for the minimalist era.

I do want to know how it goes with the G11. I am a G10 fanatic. I NEVER am without it. I want to hear how you make it work on a professional shoot. I have used the G10 for some shots on jobs (mixed in with my D300 shots) and my clients have not known the difference. They were more concerned that I captured the essence of the project I am shooting.

Keep it going Kirk! You have a believer here.

obakesan said...

Hi Kirk

its interesting that people seem to be still having trouble accepting that compact digital cameras have a place in professional work. Its nearly 9 years on that Moose Peterson said of the little 5 megapixel Coolpix 5000:

"I've already submitted images taken with the Coolpix 5000 for publication, did so without any hesitation!"

Cameras like the G11 and more so the 4/3rds stuff like the Olympus PEN can only be better