5.07.2009

Getting what you want with digital.

I've made no bones about my appreciation of film and film cameras but there is a certain reality that has to be interjected when we talk about the world of photography in 2009. For better or worse clients expect things to be done faster than a haircut and for little or no money.

There was even a goofy idea on the web that somehow we'd all get rich if we just gave everything away for free. But the guy who came up with that stupid idea starved to death a few 

weeks ago and his intellectual supporters have moved on to the thorny problem of how to "monetize" Twitter. (that means "make money" for all the gentle readers who haven't kept up with the frighteningly fast destruction of common language...).

The rest of us are left with the task of bringing some sort of sanity back to the financial models of our industries. Here's a novel idea:  Let's charge money for what we do.  A cheerful amendment:  Let's charge additional money for using the images more than once!  A third idea:  Let's charge more than it actually costs us to make the image.  (That would include materials, cameras and our time!!!)

That was all non-sequitar.  What I really want to talk about is how to arm wrestle with the digital media to get the images you really like.

All three of the attached images were done for an advertising campaign for the Austin Lyric Opera.  In each shot I wanted to get the kind of soft, non detailed background we used to get when we shot portraits with a long lens on a view camera. In this case our non-profit client had a very "non-profity" budget so our choice was digital or.....digital.  And here's where it gets interesting.  As soulless as I make digital photography out to be I am sometimes (wife and friends snicker...) given to hyperbole.  I must grudgingly admit that a number of the digital cameras produced in the recent past are possessed with an intangible but very visible character that makes them wonderfully different from the run of the mill.

Top of my list is the Kodak family.  My regard for the DCS 760, six megapixel camera from 2002 is unabated.  I battle for dominance with my DCS SLR/n and on the times when I win and the camera grudgingly accepts my direction I am truly delighted with the files.   I sometimes sit on the back porch with a warm cup of coffee and a lone tear comes to my eye when I ponder the irony of Kodak inventing all the good stuff but no longer able to compete in the market......

In the Nikon family, the D700 is a great camera but it lacks personality.  The D2h is a so-s0 image producer but has the personality of a border collie.  The D300 and the D100 both exude soul like a box of Motown 45's.  The Sony R1 is an axe bumbling idiot with flashes of savant genius.  And so on.  But I digress.

When I started planning this campaign for the ALO I know I wanted shallow depth and a color palette that was different than the latest eagerly precise and clinically sterile cameras.  I choose the DCS 760  and decided to shoot at ISO 80.  To get the tiny depth of field I craved I looked through the lens drawer and, after long consideration, I pulled out my unreliable sleeper, the Nikon 105 f2 DC (defocus coupling) lens.  I say unreliable because no matter how often I use it I'm never able to really predict the outcome.  Perfect for a job like this.

And, of course you know that I had to choose a continuous light source to make the wide open aperture work the way I wanted it to.  I used a light that is no longer made.  A Profoto Protungsten.  A fan cooled fixture that mimics the ergonomics of the Profoto flash heads and takes all the same light modifiers.  I used a Magnum reflector with a wide spread and coaxed the light through two layers of white scrim material clinging to a six foot by six foot frame. This was suspended above and to the right of the subject just as close as I could place it without making it a co-star in the frame.

Here's the secret of making tungsten work with an old Kodak that was famous for it's noisy blue channel:  Gel the light with a 1/2 CTB.  That's a filter that gets you half way from tungsten color balance to daylight balance.  Essentially you are trying to keep the camera from compensating from the lack of blue in 3200K light by ramping up the amplification on the blue channel and flooding the image with noise.

I used a small Desisti 300 watt spotlight in its wide flood position for the background.  The only other trick is to try to position the bright spots and the shadows that appear in the background in the proper relationship to the subject.

I love shooting this way.  One part of me always longs for stuff like Leaf medium format digital cameras and Nikon D3x's but as soon as I've got them in hand I feel like a slave.  I'm always trying to show off their capabilities instead of mine.  Mine are all about design and rapport and posing and thinking.  They want me to show off sharpness and accuracy and other things that computers do so well.  It's a hell of a fight when you have to go mano a mano with the very tools that should be serving your vision instead of trying to create it.

Random Note:  Please check out my second book.  I think it's quite good and though you may be too advanced for it at this stage in your career I'm sure that your wives and mothers would love a copy for mother's day.......Minimalist Lighting:  etc. Studio