10.12.2009

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.

Kirk