Busman's holiday. It's like a Sunday but I have nothing to rant about....

I don't know about you but after a long, tough week of commercial photography and swim meets and weddings and videos nothing relaxes me quite like a nice hot stroll thru downtown Austin with a favorite camera and lens.  When I go out walking there's really no agenda.  No picture quota.  No pressure to come back with something "fantastic".  I just walk and wander and get my camera feet wet.

I started my walk around 3:30 pm over by Flip Happy Crepes, just south of the river.  The tables and chairs always seem to have otherworldly colors that make me happy.  Then I crossed over the pedestrian bridge and I was happy I was paying attention to my space because I got to watch kids jumping off the arches of the next bridge over and into Town Lake.  Some were jumping from thirty or forty feet in the air. Their insouciance was palpable and their unrestrained joy at risk taking made me a bit envious.

I stumbled through the west side of downtown and stopped at Jo's on 2nd street for an ice tea.  It was in the high 90's outside and the ice tea gave me a bit of brain freeze for a couple of minutes.  Hasn't happened to me in a while.  I swung around to Six Street and made my way back up to the Whole Foods Store on Lamar Blvd.

I was using my Olympus e30 with a 14-35mm f2 SHG lens on the front.  I didn't see many interesting people and all the buildings are starting to look the same to me.  A sure sign that it's time to travel some more.  I'm really longing to get back to Rome or Milan and meander through crowds of tourists and Italians, hunting for good images.  But that can wait till the Fall when the crowds thin out and the prices fall.

What I wanted to see today was if there really is magic in the SHG lens.  Problem is, during most of the walk there was nothing to aim the magic at.  Goes back to what the Zen guys say,  "The harder you try the more distant the reward."  The combination of the heat and the holiday put the downtown dynamic on hold, but that's okay. Just the walking is also part of the creative process.

I had a contemplative walnut, oatmeal, chocolate chip cookie and a small coffe with milk at Whole Foods and chatted with an old friend.  Then I continued the return phase of my walk.  The part where your car seems much further away than you remember.  On the way there I walked past a green wall that shields a construction site.  Young trees were planted at skimpy intervals along the temporary, plywood wall.  At last.  Something I could sink my camera into.

And so I did.  And I'm happy with what I shot.  I love the saturated green and the skinny trees.  I had a conversation with a friend who's life is very, very different from mine.  He's very successful in his field and very well thought of.  We've made different choices.  Neither of us has made the wrong choice, just different.  I can't imagine having a real job.  Having a schedule beyond the capricious and mercurial schedule of a freelance photographer.  I can't imagine eating lunch in my office every day or not being able to "call it a day" when I'm bored or tired.

I imagine my friend can't imagine a life where you don't really know if, or from where, next month's money will come from.  Whether or not clients will emerge, just in the nick of time.  Whether or not the checks will come in time to make the next mortgage payment.  Not knowing if what you've saved for the kid's college education will cover the real costs.  Whether your idea of art will find a market.  And much more.

I chose a life of insecurity and freedom.  He chose a life of security and responsibility.  Neither is perfect and yet there isn't really an intersection either.  There's no way either of us can now trade for the attributes of the other's experiences even if we wanted to.  It's too late for me to become a famous brain surgeon or corporate attorney.  To cash in and become truly secure.  It's too late for him to have the kind of extended adventures and close calls that only youth can survive.

One way is black.  One way is white.  Intermixing them is a fool's errand diluting both sides and, in the end, yields nothing of real value.  There's no way of knowing which fork of the road is the one that will make you happiest.  There are no wrong choices.  The only regret is not making a choice.

I really believe that one can't be an artist without being strongly opinionated.  That doesn't mean you constantly argue with people.  It means you don't argue with yourself.  You know how a thing should be.  You make things the way they should be.  That's all you can do.

Whatever your choices, I hope you have a great week!  Kirk

Business Decisions versus Personal Shooting Decisions.

It's interesting how equipment decisions get made.  I would have been happy spending the rest of my life as a photographer shooting with the Hasselblad I used to create the image above.  And, after experimenting for over a decade with black and white films and various processing routines I would be just as happy spending those years shooting Tri-X and developing it in D76 at a 1:1 dilution.  And I would be ecstatic to print all the resulting images on Ilfobrom graded double weight paper.  But that paper was put out to pasture years before digital was even a seedy leer in the eyes of any photographers.

If you've read my column you probably know that I've spent the last year shooting with Olympus DSLR cameras and lenses and, for the most part, have been quite happy with them.  Most of my clients have moved the majority of their advertising to the web or some other electronic avenue and so the size of the files isn't really meaningful to them.  Armed with a couple of e30's and some hand selected SHG glass I think I would have been very happy to shoot with nothing but the e stuff for years to come.  At least that was my intention.  And if I shot only for myself I do think that 12 megapixels with really nice color is the "sweet spot" most of us were looking for in the first place.  But one thing I've learned in this business is that nothing stands still.  Everyone is a looking for a marketing advantage and when they find one, they press it.

The wild cards in all my presumptions about gear are the advertising agency clients.  The art directors.  The creative people on the front line.   Over the past year we did many images that were destined for small space ads in print or for use on the web in websites and in presentation materials.  People loved the Olympus colors and really got the idea of differentiation of vision.  Then the economy recovered and the one Achille's Heel of the smaller camera sensors emerged.  Raw resolution.

My single largest ad agency client, someone directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars of billings over the past decade, did two things.  First, he worked with a photographer in Dallas who just bought a high megapixel (21+) camera and was very evangelical about it's attributes.  Second, he designed a piece for  a client that was:  1. 11 by 17 inches, with full bleed images.  2.  Destined to be printed on very expensive, gloss paper stock.  He started comparing the raw resolution and detail he got from his Dallas shoot to some of our preliminary tests on 12 megapixel cameras.  And then he threw down the ultimatum:  High resolution camera or no assignment.

Whatever his understanding of photography he had parsed what he considered to be defining attributes for his projects going forward and he made the determination that he would set out his own expectations for his creative suppliers.  I had three choices and I didn't particularly like any of them.  1.  I could rent the gear I needed for the job.  But I was certain that, if the job went well, he would partially attribute our success to the gear and I'd be renting the gear many times, over the course of the year.  Not to mention that local rental houses have different lenses than I normally use..  2.  I could tell him all the reasons that I think the 12 megapixel paradigm is the "sweet spot" and how much I like the colors, etc. and take my economic chances that he would choose to work with more compliant partners.  This is not a person who is confrontational, and we've worked together for 20+ years.  He obviously saw differences that were/are important to his work.  If I chose the second course of action we would still be good friends, he still might hire me to do work that was headed solely to the web but........

The third course of action, and the thing I wound up doing was to listen with intensity to what my client was saying and to react in the way that would, long term, be most profitable for both my working relationship with him and my piece of mind.  I bit the bullet and headed to Precision Camera to decide on a new system.  Having done six video projects with Will van Overbeek and his Canon 5d mark 2 I was already leaning in that direction.  I like Nikon stuff okay but the video in the 5d mark 2 is pretty convinciing.  I also ran my decision making process past "no nonsense" architectural photographer,  Paul Bardagjy and he gave a big thumbs up to the Canon 5d2.  It's the camera he uses, along with just about every shift lens ever made, to do all of his current business.

In fairness, I did play with the Sony cameras,  the a850 and the a900.  In the end it was the lack of a big line up of lenses and the lack of any video capability that was the final determiner.  I reached deep into my beleagured and weary wallet and plunked down for a Canon system.  I'm sure everyone will want to know what I bought so I might as well divulge the list here and now:

Canon 5d mk2,  24-105mm L zoom,  70-200mm f4 non IS L zoom,  20mm 2.8, 100mm f2 and the "nifty fifty", the 50mm 1.8.  I toyed around with getting some Canon flash but I've never been very impressed with the flash capability of the system, especially having once been a Nikon flash user, so I stuck with my current cheap favorites and ordered a Vivitar 383df dedicated to the Canon.  I use a macro on a bellows quite a bit so I bought a very inexpensive Fotodiox EOS bellows and am using a nice, older Micro Nikkor 3.5 lens with an adapter ring for my high tech wafer and microprocessor work.  There are a few things I'd like to add including the 28mm 1.8 (which Will says is his favorite) and the 85mm 1.8 (which is similar to the Canon 85 I had back in the non-AF days.  I also owned the EOS film cameras and many of the lenses so I am more than passingly familiar with the system.

What's my verdict?  When raw resolution is at the top of the purchase order this camera delivers.  I like it for the most part and I think the menu is easy to get used to.  The 24-105 mm is very decent but not in the same league as the Olympus 14-35mm.   The 70-200 f4 is very sharp, even wide open.  And it's much lighter than the Olympus 35-100 but the Oly lens is so sharp and the out of focus areas are so delicious that I can't let go of it.

Here's the bottom line:  To get the most out of the Canon,  to get what I paid for,  I have to shoot at 21 megapixels and shoot in RAW.  That's how you maximize the perceived difference that the clients demanded.  But you end up with so few images on a CF card.  You end up churning your computer's hard drive and processor.  Storage becomes an new concern. Etc.  If enough people are interested in the Canon 5d2 I'll write my review but frankly, I don't have much to add to all the stuff that's out there.

So, what happens to all that cool Olympus stuff?  Well.  I keep shooting with it for all the same reasons I did in the first place:  Better jpegs.  Better out of camera colors.  The most interesting normal focal length zoom I've ever shot with.  The perfect file sizes for shooting theater, events, travel, etc.  In many ways the systems are complementary.  I think of the Canon as my "print advertising camera" and my Olympus stuff as my "all purpose toolbox".

Some friends suggest I simplify by getting rid of the Oly stuff and just ramping up with Canon gear.  They assume I'll do this eventually anyway.  But they are forgetting that I already own the best camera system in the world.....the Olympus Pen Cameras!!!  And as long as I can shoot video with them, and put all kinds of esoteric lenses on the front ( like the 14-35mm f2 and the 35-100mm f2) it's silly to sell off the 4:3 bodies.  Life has changed.  We're not shooting the same stuff all the time.  It's nice to have different tools.

It's the reason I still have so many other cameras.  It keeps things fresh.

Long version:  all I've written above.

Short version:  follow the money.

Just thought I should continue to divulge.  That's what readers have said they value.

From Book Cover to Bride.

When I started working on my second book I needed a model so I could illustrate the techniques I talked about.  I tried to press my sometime assistant/full time friend, Amy into the position but she was having none of it.  She did have suggestion.  It was Heidi.  When Heidi walked into my studio I knew that Amy had me totally figured out (not that I'm hard to decipher.....).  She had enormous, happy eyes, fabulous Italian lips and elegant cheekbones.   The three of us had a fun day shooting with large and small umbrellas, bouncing sunlight into the studio and generally dragging out all the lighting gear and putting it through its paces.  Heidi was wonderful to work with and barely complained when I forgot to send along a check with my usual dispatch.

When we put the book together I supplied several different images for the front cover.  My publisher had different ideas (and in retrospect I can see he was right...) and chose one of the images from the available lighting series of images I'd done with Heidi.  She made the book cover in a photograph with a black background.  Funny thing,  in a book all about studio lighting it was one of the images we made with the bounced sunlight through the west windows.

I recently got an e-mail from Heidi,  she said she was getting married and looking for a wedding photographer.  About six weeks later I showed up at the door of a house in south Austin and met Heidi and her attendants.  We had a rollicking good time before the wedding, during the ceremony and afterwards at the Mean Eyed Cat bar on West 5th St.  Unlike some weddings that seem to have undertones of psychosis and virulent "family issues", this was one of the sweetest weddings and collections of people that I've experienced.  It sounds corny, but it was a privilege to attend.  And a blast to shoot.

If you've been reading lately you probably know that my fickle personality has me playing with two and a half camera systems at this point.  So I used all three on this project.

I started out shooting the "getting ready" stuff on a Canon 5Dmk2 with basically two lenses:  the 100mm f2 and the 24-105 L zoom.  I like the out of focus rendering of the former and the handholdable "shoot anything-ness" of the latter.  I shot sRaw (9 meg setting) and was mostly delighted with the files.  I kept the ISO under 800 and didn't touch a flash with the combo.

I shot the ceremony and most of the group photos with an Olympus e30 and both the SHG zoom lenses. The 35-100mm is a wonderful lens to shoot a ceremony with.  Fast enough for available light with an ISO of less than 800.  Sharp enough to shoot wide open with impunity.  The 14-35mm lens was my "go-to" lens for the reception.  Super sharp at f2 and well done, in body, IS meant that I rarely reached for a flash.  Only when the last of the daylight vanished and no photons stumbled in thru the windows did I ever reach for a flash unit.  When I did I just used a Vivitar 383df (dedicated to Oly) dialed down two thirds of a stop.  Right on the money every time.  As an aside, I bought a couple of the 383df's when I first started toying with the Olympus cameras and I always thought I would upgrade to the FL50r at some points.  But here's the deal:  The flashes just flat out work well in TTL mode, they recycle quickly enough and they are much lighter and less complicated than the Olympus flashes.  As an added bonus they also feature a simple to use, built-in optical slave that makes them very usable as slave flashes with any system.  You just set to "slave" dial them down as low as 1/16th power and forget them.  The optical slave cells are great.   In most rooms you'll never have a misfire or a non-fire.

How much do I like these flashes?  Well, I just ordered a dedicated version of the same flash for the Canon camera.

I also mentioned my "half" system.  What the hell am I talking about?  Of course, it's the Olympus Pen cameras.  I've taken to bringing the Pen EPL with a Panasonic 20mm 1.7 with me everywhere.  So after I pack up the car and get ready to leave one location (the ceremony, for instance) I might notice something really cool that needs to be shot.  Since the EPL is over one shoulder or around my neck I'm ready to lift it to my eye and go.  I did that a lot.  I also keep it handy when I'm taking a break for delicious BBQ or a quick bathroom break.

Here's what I like about shooting weddings.  Especially casual, fun and happy weddings like Heidi's:  You have active permission to be the ultimate voyeur.  People expect to be photographed at weddings and no one questions your right and imperative to be there clicking.  You can explore the interesting faces at whatever distance you like.  You can linger over a shot and get it just right.  Shimmy to the left to get more of the out of focus couple in the background and so much more.  You get to shoot in a way that you wouldn't get away with out in the street.  At least not over and over again.

I would do weddings in ernest if all the brides were like Heidi.  But I've been to weddings, a lot over the years, and even some of the nicer people I've known turn into psycho killers under this form of duress.  I think I'll reserve shooting weddings to an occasional pastime.  I certainly admire those who do it every weekend because, to do it well requires not only a good eye and good technical skills but also endurance and a modicum of grace under social pressure....

I had another fun project this weekend (actually two more......).  On friday evening (in 96 degrees...) I headed to the pool at the Western Hills Athletic club ( where I spent ten exciting years as a board member....) to photograph the kids of the mighty, Rollingwood Waves, as they held their second full out swim meet of the season.   This will be the tenth season that my son, Ben, has participated in the summer swim league.  Last year he was one of the volunteer assistant coaches.  This year he's one of the big kids that all the little guys look up to.  Our kid's head coach is Whitney Hedgepeth who won a gold and two silvers in a recent Olympics.

In our league all the parents have to volunteer to work to support at least four of the seven swim meets.  You could end up as a timer, a stroke judge or, most dreaded of all, an age group parent.  The ultimate hard job this year is age group parent to the six and under boys.  There are 40  kids in that age group this year!  If you have this hallowed position you are responsible for making sure they don't kill each other, choke to death on Skittles, and you have to lead them up to the ready bench in time for their events.

I've done all of those jobs and probably would still be relegated to six and under rodeo if someone early on hadn't known what my "day job" was.  Since that time I've become the official photographer for the mighty Rollingwood Waves.  My job is to document every swim meet,  photograph the kids swimming and hanging out, try to catch kids in mid air dives and strive for heroic swimming portraits.  After every swim meet I edit five hundred to a thousand images and create a web gallery on Smugmug.  Since my board position creates an obvious conflict of interest I can't really sell the images and make a profit.  But I don't want to train parents to expect free photographs either (these are families that live in one of the  wealthiest neighborhoods in central Texas) so I charge for  "personal use digital downloads" and all the proceeds go to the Eanes Education Foundation which supports our local, public schools (Westlake High School, where Ben will go next years as a freshman, is currently listed as one of the top 100 high schools in the entire United States...).

At the end of the season we have an awards ceremony for the kids and the families.  Speeches are spoken, awards given and received, dinners devoured and, at the very end, we put on a slide show of all the best shots from the season.  Since we try to include every single child, and we also want to have all the funnest shots in the show it tends to go on for 12 to 15 minutes.  We get the teenagers to produce a music track.  Every year we figure out ways to improve the projection.  It's all fun.  Now that I've worked with Kevin Ames I'll be rigorously calibrating the digital projector this year.....

This is another chance for me to do three things photographers need to do:  1.  Meet the influential people in our area.  2.  Showcase my photographic abilities, and 3.  Get a lot a practice getting close and photographing people.  A side benefit is that I get the endurance exercise of carrying around an Olympus camera with a 35-100 on one shoulder and another camera with the 14-35 on the other shoulder.  Do that in the late afternoon heat for three and a half hours and you'll either drop over or emerge stronger.  I'm hoping for the "stronger".

This week projects came in threes so even though I had the swim meet on Friday afternoon/evening and the wedding all day on Saturday,  I got to throw in a video project with my dear friend, Will van Overbeek, right after the swim meet.  We did a video piece in our continuing series for Glasstire Magazine.  This time it was on the prom being thrown by the arts organization housed at Flatbed Press in east Austin.  We did interviews with the two women throwing the party and shot a lot of footage of the festivities.  After a couple glasses of champagne we headed out.  We'll be editing this week and I'll try to post a link to the video.  We shot it with Will's 5d2 and a couple different primes.

Seems to me that our local economy is springing back to life.  I hope it's that way all over the world.  I guess this catches me up for now.   Hope you have a great week.  Kirk


You've got to read what Michael Johnston wrote yesterday....

It's a hilarious, 26 step guide to buying just the right camera.  And you'll know his column struck a few nerves when you browse through some of the 199 comments that quickly appeared!  Internet gold.



Not living in the past. Here's something new......

Office Lobby in the Dallas area.  April 2010.

We tend to get pigeon-holed in this industry.  Do a nice campaign with people in it and you're sunk.  You'll only get calls for projects with people.  We tend to do it to ourselves though.  We find a part of photography that's fun for us and we go back to the well again and again. But the reality is that if you are the beneficiary (victim?) of both a well rounded, liberal arts education and a good technical grounding in photography, you should be able to bring both the taste and skills (such as they are) to just about any assignment.

One of my first assignments, years ago, was for a lifestyle magazine dedicated to American antiquities.  I spent months and months on the road photographing the interiors and exteriors of historic homes.  I shot plantation houses, ranch houses and meticulous reproductions of famous historic architectural styles.  I got to know my view camera and my interior lighting from every angle and at one point could use it almost as fast as a point and shoot.

So, recently I did a comprehensive job for a law firm, shooting partners and associates and their far flung offices.  The art director I worked was one of the rare ones who really gets that styles can cross over genres and specialities.  With this in mind she also asked me to shoot the offices.

I was entranced by this lobby.  Those are huge metal doors in the background.  They move with computer controlled electric motors.  They are "James Bond" cool.

Here's a close-up of the doors.....
I used a Canon 5D mk 2 and an old 20mm f2.8 lens.  I did a few, slight perspective changes in PhotoShop but nothing too dramatic.  I remembered that I like shooting architectural stuff.  I'd largely abandoned it in deference to a close friend.  I didn't want to compete.  But now we've both decided to broaden our markets so I'm looking for more interesting assignments like this.

It's not too hard when the client and their architectural designers have done their jobs well.  The challenging stuff is trying to make a silk purse out of tilt wall construction and cheap furniture.  But that's story for another time.....

Dark and moody. It's the big umbrella used close for the right look.

Just horsing around in the studio one day, shooting portraits for fun.  No client.  No deadline.  No schedule.  I default to my favorite lighting.   It's one, big soft light in a Balcar 60 inch Zebra umbrella with a diffusion panel over the front face of the umbrella to smooth out and soften that silver/white alternating pattern.  I used it with a tungsten light (am I crazy or are other people also in love with the way continuous light softens skin and what not....?)  The background is a natty old grey dyed muslin, twenty feet behind Rene that's being lit with a small, unfocused fresnel fixture.  Three "must have" items for photographic happiness:  any camera.  any nice, large light source.  a beautiful woman.

The lighting is so simple.  Someone asked me if I would do a workshop but I'm not sure what we'd talk about after the fifteen minutes it would take to set up the lights and meter them.  I guess we could spend the rest of the day having lunch and cocktails.  The plumbing part of photography is pretty straightforward.  Thank goodness. That gives us time to work on the hard stuff.  Like finding the right subjects.  Posing and expression.  Film development or file massage.  Printing. Whatever.  You know, the stuff you really can't teach....

Available Light gets Short Shrift these days but it can really rock.

You probably are tired of hearing the shopworn old saying, "Give someone a hammer and suddenly everything looks like a nail...."  I'm tired of hearing that too.  I'm also tired of hearing the phrase, "Horses for courses".   I've never owned a horse and few of the people I deal with every day have owned horses either.  I think it must mean that you would use a quarter horse for rodeo work and a thoroughbred for some kinds of races; perhaps a Clydesdale to pull your beer wagon around.....

But, back to the hammer one.  In the last few years we've been teaching anyone with a few extra bucks how to use flash.  In fact, to read the Strobist.com discussion group or even one of my first two books you could be excused for thinking that a battery powered flash, connected via wires or radio triggers, is as important as the lens in taking acceptable photographs.

Surprise!  Available light still works.  Even with digital!  While I think it's great to be able to pull a tool out of the box (a flash?) and know how to use it when the light gets dicey and you need some help, it's not the Holy Grail of photography. Problem is that many people tend to learn a technique and apply it in every instance.

This is a reminder to look for beautiful light and use it as your FIRST line of creative tactics.  The universe has billions more years of experience (unless you are a literal Bible believer) in creating and sharing really nice and interesting light.  Part of being a photographer is learning to see the promise of fine lighting and leverage it into your images.

The shot above was very simple.  I was sitting having  mocha almond cake at Les Amis cafe on the corner of 24th street and the street one block west of Guadelupe, in Austin, Texas.  I was sitting outside covered by a patio roof.  I was a few feet in from the sun.  I had my ancient Canon TX 35mm camera, loaded with the (nearly) required Tri-X black and white film.  That day I was playing with a Vivitar 135mm f2.8 lens.  I turned around to follow the wandering eye of my guest and spotted this charming young woman.  I smiled, brought up the camera, matched the needle for exposure and clicked off a frame.  She smiled and we both went back to the important business of enjoying our afternoon snacks.  This image, though well over thirty years old, constantly reminds me to look at available light first.  And to use it if it works.

Today is actually International Available Light Portrait Day.  Celebrate by taking some low stress, high return portraits----just for fun.  Happy IALPD!


Confronted with Craftsmanship.

If you've read my blogs over the past months you probably know that I like to grab the camera de jour and point the racing Element (for the flat of humor,  the Element is the lowest performance car I've owned since my original 65 horsepower VW Beetle.  Yes, the old one....).  I like walking around because it's a fun way to get some exercise but I also have a secondary agenda.  I've been dropping in to San Antonio for over a decade because I like the way it changes between visits and I like that downtown SA is still a sidewalk culture.  You still see people out and about.  I recently grabbed my Olympus EP-2 and hit the streets.  I was walking up Houston street amazed at all the buildings and businesses gone or transformed when I walked up to the Majestic theater.
I've been by the Theater many times before, mainly because it's entrance is tucked under an overhanging  second story that provides all day shade and a cool place to walk in hot, sticky summer visits.  In that sense it reminds me of the streets in Bologna.  I'd noticed the ticket booth many times but for some reason I was really captivated on this visit.  The paint was freshly redone and the colors were vibrant.  But more than that, I took some time to really look at how much effort and craftsmanship went into building this in the first place and how meticulously it has been maintained.  It's been there longer than I can remember....
The light was low but I leaned on the camera's pretty decent IS instead of ratcheting up the ISO.  I wanted to keep the colors as crisp and saturated as possible.  I ended up shooting at 1/15th of second to 1/30th of a second nearly wide open with my 38mm Pen F lens with a Pen adapter.  The photos are no great shakes.  I'm not an architectural photographer.  But they resonate with me because I can see so much hand detail in every frame.  Especially so in the close-up below.  They are convincing evidence that spreadsheets lie and that a few extra steps and effort might have long term benefits that justify prodding budgets.  We forget sometimes that the world should be wonderous and beautiful.  Just want to share this one with you.  If you are heading to SA it's right in the middle of downtown on Houston street.  Happy shooting.

Small, fast cameras. Bigger is not better.

Wouldn't it be great to be able to spend the rest of your days walking through the streets of exciting cities and taking images of whatever caught your eye?  Sucks living in a car city.  Maybe that's why I like roaming streets crowded with pedestrians in other cities.  Here in Austin most of us live in "neighborhoods" or suburbs.  More people are moving into downtown but the street culture is very nascent.  I can hardly wait for it to catch up.  I do my part.  I head into downtown whenever I can and I patronize the cool little restaurants and bars that are starting to spill out to the sidewalks.

The photo above was taken in Paris with a small Nikon 35ti film camera and some Tri-X.  The camera fit in my hand and never had a strap.  It was easy to prefocus, the fixed 35mm lens meant that I had no decisions to make about lenses.  I could set a manual exposure and argue with the camera later when I went into the dark room.  I KNOW it is faster to use in this way than ANY autofocus DSLR with any zoom lens on the front.  And I know that the time spent in doing the process with a slower camera would change the dynamic.  I'm not concerned when shooting in the street that someone will be angry or will keep me from working.  I'm only concerned that the thing I saw, the emotion I wanted to capture, not be changed by people's realization of my presence, my intention or any other controllable parameter.

Everyone believes that their reality is the "real" one.  Except the Jedi Knights.  They knew that your focus determines your reality.   And my focus is locked at ten feet.
A more intimate image taken with a Canonet QL17 and tri-x.

Final word on the small cameras.  You will more likely carry a small camera that intrudes less on you.  And when you have it with you then you'll have more and more opportunities to connect with the things that tickle your subconscious.

Beginner's Eyes. Getting them back.

I am sad that I learned so much about the plumbing of photography because my desire to make technically perfect images has certainly gone a long way toward beating up the part of my brain that just wanted to look at stuff and go, "Hey! They would be neat.  Let's just press the button."

There always comes a time when you have to sort through stuff and file things away deeper and deeper into the warehouse of treasures to make room for the newer treasures.  You sort through in case you missed a few gems that need to be put into more convenient storage (metaphorically speaking).  And in this process you invariably come across things that disquiet your own self image.  Take for instance the concepts of "mastery".  I took this photo above in 1978 before I knew anything about photography.  I lined up the "stick-with-the-lollypop" (match needle metering)  in the finder of a Canon TX camera and pushed the button.  And then I learned how to take pictures.  But, we live in a society that loves to dissect and quantify.  In some sense our modern culture group-thinks that all phenomena can be explained if only we can subject it to a rigorous enough bisection, followed by a meticulous calculation of the components.

Our prevailing idea of mastery is to know ALL the technical steps that can be known for completing a project with "best practices".  That requires turbo-charging the math and analytical side of your brain.  But the practice is fraught with all kinds of peril.  The math brain is a very vicious hoodlum in many regards.  But mostly because he believes that everything can be reduced to a series of memorized formulae.  Eventually you will know all the reasons why every scene you come across is "compromised" and unable to be "effectively" shot and made "perfect".  You begin only to photograph scenes that can be shoehorned into the narrow definition of perfection.  At some point your technical focus becomes your reality.  You cease to see things outside the filter of this reality.  You have now gained technical master while atrophying the part of your brain that was responsible for recognizing the subjects that made you feel happy and engaged.  Engaged not because you could capture them perfectly but because you would enjoy the experience of visually encountering them even if a camera were not involved.

At this point the technical considerations become a mental straightjacket binding your creative limbs and preventing you from hurting yourself by "having to" endure the possibility of a failed photo.  How sad.  At that point you will have lost your "beginner's eyes" and the very thrill that compelled you to be a photographer in the first place.

Cameras like the Lomo are an attempt to short circuit technical thinking and just react.  But we don't really need to degrade our cameras to return to the pure joy of photography.  We only need to respond emotionally to what's in front of the camera and to click with whatever camera we have in hand.  Sometimes I am more attracted to the failed frame than the traditional keeper.

You may be more enlightened than me.  This issue may not come up for you.  But if you are a technical/research/process/workflow/measurement kind of guy chances are you've got it so bad you can't even see it.  You can work on getting back to an unguarded or technically un-nuanced  reaction to images or you can accept that compulsive reduction is part of your gestalt and just enjoy the process as you enjoy it and ignore my own self-examination.

I do know one thing.  I liked the energy in the  photos I took years ago.  A lot.  It made up for the glitches.

A portrait of a stranger's feet.

"To me, photography is an art of observation. It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place... I've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them."
Elliott Erwitt 

I was originally asked to photograph dancers.  But the image I remember from that particular photo shoot was of these feet.  It was a quick shot, recognized and recorded on one or two frames before the dancer moved and the image was gone.  You can try to create the amazing things you see, from time to time, but really it's never the same. There's a magic in the undisturbed recognition that can never be fully recreated.  That's why it's always important to shoot the moment the "every day" transforms into magic.  But just like magic, it's all gone in an instant......

Shoot more.  Think less.  Happy photographer.


Pretty Picture. No big manifesto.

A significant portion of my business is spent shooting portraits.  I shoot all kinds.  I have fun shooting corporate people because they always have a story or an agenda they are anxious to share with you.  And the higher up the ladder you subject is the more time they've spent in front of cameras.  That makes them easy to work with.  They know how to move and what expressions to make in front of the lens.

I shoot portraits of kids for two different reasons.  On the lighter side, I take photos for my son's swim team.  It's just a Summer league program at our club but they get a bit competitive and the coach is a recent Olympic gold medal winner.  This is fun and easy.  I know a lot the kids, especially the older ones and I know most of the parents.  I've been doing this for ten years.  My big goals are to make images where the light is nice and the kids are unposed.  I like to capture happy, interactive moments between the kids.  Just for fun I like to try getting each kid mid-dive (or mid-jump, depending on their skill level). They look so exuberant frozen in a highly kinetic maneuvers. Their anticipation of contact with the water is so clear....

The other reason I shoot portraits of kids is for a couple of non-profits I work with that deliver educational support services to under-served children.  Here we're making portraits that are a kind of short hand that says, "I'm a great kid,  I have lots of potential,  I'm worth spending resources on, and I am a metaphor for thousands of kids just like me."  That's a lot to say.  Fortunately, the kids are up to the task.  I am there as the conduit or transmitter but they put in the effort that makes the fundraising work.

A lot of the portrait shoots are for advertising projects.  We attempt to show an archetype of a demographic.  In some cases the archetype is aspirational ( you want to become like her ) in other cases it's purely representational (she's just like you and her life was improved by our product.....yours may be as well....).  When we shoot for the agencies we listen very hard and try to reflect everything we here in the model selection, the propping and the wardrobe.  But mostly we listen to hard to understand the look or expression that everyone is trying to express.

The image above is of a model named Kara.  I've worked with Kara on a number of projects and I really like her look.  It's softer than a fashion look and more animated than a "soccer mom" look.  I asked her to do this image with me as a possible book cover for my second book.  I liked the image a lot but my publisher chose another image for the cover.  At some point it is all just personal taste.  I like the image they chose just as well.  It was just different.

We used soft, directional lighting and balanced it with the light in the room behind Kara.  I used an older 14 megapixel full frame camera and an ancient (but yummy) Nikon 105mm 2.5 lens.  I cropped this image to a square because I like squares.

It was all good, clean fun.  I like the crisp blue of Kara's shirt against the warmth of the Saltillo tiles and warm walls of the background.  I like the large aperture setting of the lens because of the way it puts the background out of focus.

There's no manifesto here.  Just a nod to every day portraits.


The cloak of invisibility.

                              Paris Museum.

It's in the Harry Potter books and in super hero comics.  It's the cloak of invisibility.  And in addition to foiling rogue magicians and killer aliens from alternate dimensions it is also highly prized by photographers who would like to see without being seen.  Problem is the cloak of invisibility doesn't exist.  We have to create our own.  I've shot in many places and in the midst of many cultures and there are a few things I've learned about becoming invisible.  I think about this when I head out to shoot.

For a street shooter I'm blessed to be "only" five feet and eight inches tall.  This is pretty average for most of the world these days.  If you are very tall or very, very short it can be harder to blend in.  I am of average weight for my height.  Not rail thin.  Not too thick.  I don't stick out because nothing sticks out.  No jutting ribs, no belly over belt.  Nothing to take a second look at.

When I go out to shoot I try to think about the way most people dress in the city I'm shooting in.  I like to buy work clothes.  I try to never wear running shoes.  I tend not to wear shorts unless the city I'm in is routinely hot and most people wear shorts.  I tend not to look at people unless I am photographing them but I also try not to look away.  I don't wear sunglasses when I shoot.  People need to see your eyes to gauge your intentions.

I don't wear clothes with big logos or bright colors.  I'm interested in never attracting attention.  I even try to buy boring eyeglasses.

All of this would be undone if I dragged along a big camera bag and lots and lots of gear.  The reason I shot with Leica M cameras for many years is the same reason I like the new micro 4:3 cameras.  They are low profile.  Not showy.  Certainly not professional looking to the casual bystander.  Nothing like a Canon 1DS with a 70-200mm 2.8.  I want my camera to be as uninteresting as the aspect I'm trying to create for myself.  People are wary of your intentions when you bring the whole cyclotron array along with you.  You look intent on capturing something.  You distance yourself from the crowd by dint of inventory.  You move with a different cadence and a different demeanor.  You become "them" and not "us".

I'm spending more time street shooting in San Antonio.  I'm practicing my invisibility.  Why? Because if you can leave the ego in the trunk of your car with all the rest of your high end photo gear you'll have access.  And access beats glamor gear every time you go out to shoot.  One camera.  One lens.  One intention:  To look and to share.  Not to capture and harvest.

    Lottery ticket booth in Rome.  I've been spotted.  My cloak of invisibility was torn open by    the Nikon f5 and the 85mm on the front.   

Favorite Focal Lengths. I don't have many.

                             Shot near the Spanish Steps in Rome.  Nikon F100 and the
                             Nikon 85mm 1.4  Tri-x  Printed on Paper. 

Michael Johnston's been talking a lot about lenses lately, over at TOP and he got me thinking again about the "desert island" lens.  Which one could you live with forever.  But this time, rather than waxing romantic and conjecturing which lens yielded the best stuff for me, I decided to go through the collection of my prints that seems always float to the top of my attention, and actually do a quick rough count and see, realistically, what I end up using without thinking about it.

I presumed it would be one of the many 50mm lenses that I seem to take with me almost everywhere.  But after a bleary eyed stroll through the nostalgia laden Ilford Gallerie boxes it dawned on me that almost every image I've ever shot, that I like, was shot with a fast 85mm lens.  The one lens which I don't own today!!

                              Image taken in a Paris Apartment on a cold, rainy November
                              day back in 1992 with a Canon EOS-1 and the first iteration of
                              the Canon 85mm 1.1.2 on Agfa 400 film.  Paper Print copy.

If I remember correctly the first 85mm lens I owned was the original FD breech lock mount Canon 1.8.  It was big, heavy and very well made and I used it extensively to photograph my then girlfriend, now wife of 25 years, as we were dating.  I don't know what I traded it for or why I got rid of it but I remember what a delicious combination it was when paired to the almost forgotten Canon EF SLR body.

I used it to take photographs of Belinda when she was taking print making classes at UT and she looked like this:

                            Belinda at UT studio class.  Painting.  Canon FTB or EF with the 
                            85mm 1.8 FD.  Tri-x.  Probably bulk loaded.

I can't remember ever leaving my apartment without the camera over my shoulder and an extra roll of bulk loaded tri-x or HP5 (whichever was cheaper at the time) in my pocket.  We lived with our cameras in an almost fetishistic way back then.....but we knew them like the backs of our hands.....

    Same combo.  I love the OOF background.  Not an expensive lens but so much more fluid than 
    today's defacto zooms.  I can't think why I moved on from this lens and camera combo.....

Then there was the Leica M period and I have to say that the only lens that makes sense for me to this day with the Leica M cameras is the 50mm.  And the best expression of this was probably in tandem with either the M3 (100 % finder image) or the M6 .85  camera.  I wonder if I moved on from the M's because the 75 was to short and unwieldy while the 90's were just a hair to long.  Not to mention that dropping one's 75mm 1.4 on to pavement was horribly expensive and traumatic.

We'd all like to think of ourselves as fearless photojournalists but I doubt many of use are like James Natchway or Don McCullin, ready to dodge bullets and shrapnel to get in close to fierce fighters with a 21 or 25mm lens.  When I walk the streets I use the 50mm but sometimes, on a warm up day, while recovering from jet lag and still street shy, I found that I have a tendency to take......the 85mm because I can stand off a bit and take shots I might not be ready to take closer.  It's kind of a chicken thing and after the warmup day I make myself get a little closer.  But it's a comfort to start shooting with a little distance and work your way in......

                              Man carrying a loaf of bread home in the evening.  Low light 
                              long before the days of high ISO's or IS.  A quick shot.


I've been shooting with the Olympus system lately and the lenses are fantastically sharp and nuanced.  But here's a downside, there's nothing like an 85mm 1.8 in the system. There's the 50mm f2 but it's too slow to focus and it's a bit too long for my taste.  The 14-25mm only reaches out to a 70mm equivilent while the 35-100 covers the focal length but at 3 pounds is much too big and unwieldy for a street shooting lens.  If they want to capture/retain the serious shooter it's time to unleash those fast primes we've all been waiting for.  They were able to do it quite nicely with the Pen F lenses from the 1960's and 1970's, there's no reason they couldn't do a 42.5mm f2 lens for the e cameras today.  I know they'd sell a couple to me......

                                Just in front of Printemps, in Paris.  A blind man and his dog.

In the meantime I guess I'll snap up something from another system to make due.  Most of my photographer friends see the 85mm as a portrait length and I agree that it's a great casual portrait lens for loose compositions.  When I get serious about portraits I usually reach for a 100 or a 135mm but sometimes the 85 can be handy......

                             One of my favorite shots of Renae.  She was the world's absolute 
                             best assistant.  And not only because she was telepathic and charming.

That's my case for the 85mm.  Blame Michael Johnston for revving me up about lenses.  I do agree with him that they are the critical gear.  Cameras are fun, lenses do the heavy lifting.  I've used 85mm's from Canon, Nikon, Contax,and Leica R (actually an 80mm Summilux but I let it slip in....)   and I'd love to tell you which one is the ultimate optic.  But here's the problem, they're probably all better than all but the most recent high res cameras so they would all qualify as equally good.  The cheapest one I shot with was the old Nikon 85mm 1.8 ai I got used for $105 years ago.  The most expensive one I used was the Leica Summilux at around $1800 new when I got mine but if you want one today they are $4695.  The slowest one I played with the was the first generation EOS 85mm 1.1.2 which took several seconds to lock focus in good light and an eternity in bad.  The fastest auto focusing 85mm I've owned was the Nikon 85 1.4.  It focused fast in any light, and on an F5 it was peerless.  The one that shot the best images for me was the old FD 85mm 1.8.  It was new to me and very exciting.  It was the first lens I owned that did wonderfully shallow depth of field.

Okay.  I've talked myself into another one.  I'll get it figured out in the morning.  


A Public Examination of a Private Process.

I'm thinking thru things today, weighing a new venture and the new intersections on the great ven diagram of my life.  The process started me down the prickly path of self-exploration that we usually leave untrodden because we have to confront a topology that's at odds with our unexamined version of self.  And that implies making real choices based on our higher vision and against our default positions which usually represent the paths of least resistance around the more interesting rocks and boulders in the streams of our consciousness.  And sometimes just becoming very clear about the things we know we should be doing is a red flag invitation to nervous anxiety, stress and internal rationalization and pain.

But when I chug my way through the contents of the thought process and then examine the dregs at the bottom of my cranial container, in yet another attempt to read my own tea leaves, I'm left with the same old questions:  What am I doing?  What do I know I would rather do?  Why aren't I doing that?

I'm pretty well convinced (and I'll admit it's easy to sell myself on ideas and rationalizations.....) that, on some level, I'm trying to do what I consider my art.  But I feel like a baker whose core business is mixing the cake batter and baking the cake only to find that I can't concentrate on, or finish with any panache, any part of the baking process because I'm too busy answering the phone, meeting the flour delivery at the back door, rushing a check over to the gas company to prevent the untimely interruption of my fuel supply....and just as my cake mix hits the perfect consistency and needs to be hurried into the greased pans and married up with the ovens the process is interrupted by the metaphoric tinkling of the bells over the front door and in comes that customer who always needs more than just a cake.  They need a tangible, fungible affiliation and bond with the artisan baker.  Then I'm torn between batter separating and the necessary massage of the littered, languid egos that also need artful attention.

In the end the resources that promise an ultimate confection are squandered and diluted.  The timing is off.  The resources misallocated.  The cake is "okay", the frosting "serviceable".  And the customers, who were partly culpable, overlook the mediocre product because they've convinced themselves that they are part of the process and that, by extension, we are all bakers and all part of a confectionery team.

The emotional need to defend the choices of their patronage assures that the doors stay open so we can go another round and the ragged process will continue....but always at a level of distraction and dilution....until the only time I can really make a cake is when the shop is closed.  Where there is no customer for the cake but me.  Baking in the early hours of the morning before the heroin-like cellphones compel my patrons to share into the process and keep me multi-tasking while the milk curdles and I ask myself "why the hell did I open a bakery in the first place?"

Most of us have too many choices.  Too many ways to communicate.  And face it,  if you are paying hundreds of dollars a month for your smart phone don't you feel guilty about wasting the money you pay if you don't use it?  And we have so many choices in PhotoShop.  Don't you always try working with an image in two or three ways before you finally commit?  Just because you can?  You could eat a sandwich on the loading dock of your studio and then get back to work on that project or you could break up the momentum and rationalize that lunch with the intriguing but long-winded colleague.  Of course you need to run out for coffee.  Of course you need to compulsively check messages and e-mails and "research" that next camera, on the web.  You could also write a novel while you are at it.  Or bake a cake. Or climb Mt. Everest.  But the reality that really bites you on the ass when you reach your 50's is that you can't do all these things and do them well.  In fact,  I've met very few people who can really do more than one thing at a high level.  I mean a really high, kick ass, level.

Where do we get the hubris to think that we can do so many things and keep any proficiency at all?  So, why am I writing all this?  I told you in the title that I'm making a public examination of a private process.  How do I decide what to do and what not to do?  Everything sounds pretty cool when it's presented.  All invitations are both a logistical communication (where and when and what) as well as a gentle, seductive touch on the ego (they really want me!).  A manipulation. But if you are the least bit presentable and sociable the invitations and opportunities to fragment and dilute are nearly endless.  So how do you choose?  What to do and what to leave?

You need some quiet time to figure out your priorities.  I recently turned down a book project.  It sounded fun.  But it didn't move my process forward.  Didn't have anything to do with MY art.  It was another project that was really an attempt to monetize a knowledge base.  To squeeze some extra profit sharing stuff I found out the hard way.

I know that some people can compartmentalize stuff so they can have their cake and eat it too.  But I'm way too linear. I can't just do a project for the  money anymore.  At least not projects that will take four to six months out of my life.  If I'm not shooting for clients I want to write stuff that I'd love to read and I want to shoot images that I love to look at.  I may be out of touch with the times but the idea of monetizing everything is as appetizing as cake frosting from a can.  But every time I accept a project that branches off from my core I resent it, I regret it and I vow never to do it again.  Until the next time someone tells me that I am smart and creative and we should do a project together.

New rules:

1.  Projects should be an extension of your long term artistic goals or you should leave them on the ground for the person you are not.

2.  Life is short.  Do real work.  Not work about work.

3.  Photography is about the creative process.  Teach that and stop teaching the plumbing side of it.

4.  Money isn't everything but creative freedom almost is.

5.  Time is more precious than anything but love.


Getting it right before you go to post processing!

I'm as guilty as anyone of putting a camera in RAW mode, setting the white balance to AWB and flailing away with the idea that I can fix it all in post.  And from a purely scientific point of view I am sure you can fix color in post given enough time and a discriminating eye.  But since the eye is a great comparator and a lousy rememberer wouldn't it be better if that was one of the things that we figured out up front?  Makes for one less step in post production and it's a step (in post)  that can adversely effect exposure settings, contrast settings and more.

I started to take this seriously when I sat through one of Will Crockett's workshops and heard him talk about his Jpeg centered process of "Kill it and Bill it." His philosophy is that careful incident exposure metering, coupled with nailing white balance at the outset means that you can use images right out of camera.

I didn't go jpeg but I put the time savings of correct, upfront, white balance to the test yesterday on a commercial shoot.  My friend, Lane, hired me to take photos of doctors and clinicians for a local sports medicine practice.  I wanted to make sure my flesh tones were consistent from set up to set up and I wanted to spend less time doing corrections before putting up web galleries for selection ( you can tell people til you are blue in the face that the uncorrected galleries are just thumbnails and will be color corrected but you will prevent much friction and second guessing if you just get the color and exposure on the money before you make the jpegs for the galleries.....) so I could efficiently spend time with the finals instead.

I used a Lastolite collapsible gray target to set my white balance for each set up.  I like to use the gray because the white requires you to really nail the exposure for the most accurate color.  Cameras seem to nail gray better....... My Lastolite is custom made for Will Crockett and has a focus target in the middle so I don't have to set my camera to manual focus or let it hunt.  The regular ones don't have the target but you could add your own with a Sharpie.

Long story all summed up.  Using an incident light meter let me know that there was a half stop difference between what I saw on the back of the camera on the LCD and what the actual exposure was.  The calibration out of the box was one half stop dark which made my files half a stop too light.  The gray card custom white balance setting meant that every single frame matched and required NO tweaking.  Interesting how a sensible shooting workflow can save hours on the back end.  Very nice.
I'd gotten lazy.  I'll fix that.  We're getting busy again so it's time to figure out all the ways to be more productive in a fixed time frame.  Ahhhhhh.