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.


Texas Road Art.

I love big open skies and sweeping overpasses. I like monumental architecture. I like concrete that soars up into the sky. And I like skies filled with every kind of cloud, from the little "puffies" to the stringy "sliders" that come racing through when the weather changes.

You'd think a self proclaimed portrait shooter would run screaming from an assignment that was all about spending quality time with no one but myself. Even more so when you realize that I've heard all my own tall tales any number of times. But there is something quite liberating about being handed a list of potential locations and a wide open schedule.

The client and I agreed about a fixed price for the project. I would get to choose the days, the times, the angles and the feel of the shots. As long as I understood the budget I was pretty much on my own. I could be early. I could be late. As long as I turned in the stuff they wanted everything was fine.

I shot for six days. I'd trek out in the morning and when I got to the location I'd look up at the clouds and try to divine whether they were about to break and let the blue sky through or whether they were fixin to well up and cry down on me. If the portents were good I'd start the search for the angles and the lay of the light I wanted.

My only nemesis was the heat. I did this project in August, just north of Austin, Texas. The sun beat down on me like a bad drummer from a 1980's metal band. But after a while you learn to wear floppy shirts and a big hat. You learn really quick to bring your sunglasses along. And I learned, after my first Photoshop review of the take, that you should always take a light tight loupe to evaluate your take on the rear LCD. No matter what the maker says, no screen is accurate when the sun is bouncing and banking all around you.

I liked the parts of the highway project that were new because commuters hadn't yet incorporated the route into their routines. That meant that three or four minutes would go by without any cars. In early afternoon the roads would be silent for even longer spells. But my favorite part of the project was crawling around and under the sweeping and majestic overpasses, trying to contain the mighty dynamic range of real life and slap it down to sensor manageable blends of photons. My biggest allies were my Polarizing filters. My most important technique: absolutely accurate exposure metering.

Nearly all of these images were done on either an Olympus e520 or an Olympus e1 and nearly all three thousand shots were done with two lenses: The 14-54 and the 11-22mm. Other indispensable equipment included my water bottle and my cheap Nevados brand cross trainer shoes from Costco.

It was a quiet and contemplative job that was full of straight ahead work and satisfaction. The kind of job everyone needs to wedge in the middle of a hectic schedule. And working in opposition to my typical ways made it all the more refreshing. I did another job like this for another client about a year ago and shot the whole thing on small cameras. G10's, SX10's and the like. The results were equally nice.

Not having the client there made me realize how far down the line of decisions the choice of the camera is. And how mightily we've tried to elevate it. The number one goal of this job was to create good images without succumbing to heat exhaustion........


Maybe the best current zoom lens in the world?

Much as I love my new Canon G11 I still find it rewarding to shoot with other cameras. I was out shooting photos on Sunday with my friend, Emily and I wanted to do some images that utilized shallow depth of field; not a strength of really small sensor cameras.

I decided to use a lens I've come to value above all the others in my equipment collection: The Olympus 35-100mm 2.0. My images just don't do justice to this optic. It's not a shortcoming of the lens it's because I need to spend more time getting my brain dialed into the things that make
this lens really unique. It's incredible sharpness when used wide open and the fact that wide open for this particular zoom lens is f 2.0.

Here's a sad admission: As analytical as I'd like to think I am I tend to work more by reductive trial and error than by illuminated epiphany. I don't really go out on a shoot with a fully formed image in my mind. I have to set up and shoot, then look and change. Rinse, repeat. Eventually I'll luck into a confluence of lighting styles, background treatments and even expressions that work for me and I'll spend time repetitively polishing those few meager skills until they work as a cohesive combination. Only when I reach that point do I get any kind of nice feedback about my images.

I bought the 35-100mm to replace the longer focal lengths I sold off when I switched from the Nikon system to the Olympus system. I like the idea of the lens alot. I've used it for a number of straightforward jobs but nothing that would really test the unique qualities it provides. That's the sad aspect of buying gear while the economy is in the toilet, there are fewer opportunities to do the kind of big production work that lends itself to pushing gear to the edge and marveling in its performance.

That being said, I find the 35-100mm is so good that it gives me more confidence in even the most pedestrian jobs. Combined with the image stabilization built into the Olympus e30 body the whole unit is formidably well suited to shooting anything I would have done with the Nikon equivalents with the exception of black cats in coal mines. The smaller imaging sensor gives me the same kind of depth of field at 2.0 that I got from the Nikon 70-200mm 2.8 at f 2.8 but with much better image correction wide open. Stopped down to f4 I feel that I get the kind of sharpness that the Nikon provided between 5.6 and 8.0.

Honestly, either system would work equally well. So would the Canon equivalents or the Sonys. Wide open depth of field is something special and when you want it no amount of Photoshop manipulation takes its place.

Does this invalidate everything I've said about the Canon G11 compact camera? Hardly. Wide open DOF shots get as repetitive as anything else in photography. It's just another technique. When I'm ready to move on I find the smaller cameras have equally important advantages. Sometimes, many times, more depth of field is the "hot application" but it's good to have avenues to both techniques.

While I was out on Sunday I did find a short coming that is endemic to all the current SLR's that isn't shared by their pint sized proteges. It's the flash sync speed. What good are all these fast optics if we have to shoot them at f11 in order to do cool fill flash in bright sunlight? I set up a large scrim to block the sun and took test shots for natural light. Everything looked pretty cool at 1/4000th of a second f2.8. But the scene just fell into the "blah" zone when I added in the light from an umbrella'ed Profoto 600b. Why? The sync speed on my e30 stopped at 1/250th and that limited the range of f/stops I could use to those that gave me too much DOF.

I shot some stuff on my G11 at 1/800th of a second at f 7.1 but when I tried to sync faster I ran into the relatively long burn time of the Profoto 600b at full power. Going up on the shutter speed, even though it would still sync, gave me less and less light because of the flash becomes less efficient. It stays on longer than the shutter stays open.

This is an ongoing issue. Especially for people in Texas who want to shoot at impractical times.

I'm adding a new camera parameter to my short list of requirements. I want an SLR that can sync at all shutter speeds. Every darn one of them. If I want to shoot wide open with a fast lens in sunlight then by God, in the 21st century we should have that option. It was available on the Kodak Retina Reflex 35mm SLR film cameras over 50 years ago. It's absolutely not rocket science.

It is a feature that the new Leica S2 offers on their new series of announced lenses for their new medium format camera. But in light of the current economy I don't think it's practical to spend $35000-45,000 just for this particular feature. Might just be more cost effective to dust off one of the old Rollei 6008's and a some of the PSQ lenses.

The other option is to use FP flash but, as with the Profoto, the faster the shutter speed the lower the power I get with them. This limits me to bundling a bunch of expensive shoe mount flashes together or working with the light ridiculously close to the subject. I'm give it another try.

But back to the main topic. Fast zoom lenses. They fall into the categories of problem solvers. They make stuff look cool. And f2.0 with a 70-200mm equivalent is something we could only dream of just a decade ago.

Workshop Notice: There is still time to sign up for my lighting workshop. It's this Sunday here in Austin, Texas (October 25th). I'll be teaching a daylong workshop with small and conventional flashes. We'll do most of the morning inside the beautiful One World Theater on Bee Caves Rd. and we'll spend most of the afternoon trying to wrestle sunlight to the ground outside. You can register at www.precision-camera.com Hit the link for more details.

It's the last lighting workshop I'll be teaching in 2009 and it should be raucous good fun. Your choice of one of my books is included in the workshop price. Just saying.