10.24.2009

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.