A post from mid-summer that goes well with my recent sunday "end of the world" post.....

Search back to july 2 if you want the original comments...

FRIDAY, JULY 2, 2010

Is technology destroying art? Does anyone care?

This is the naked die of a micro something or other.  We shot it last month for the semiconductor company that makes it. Its brethren will go into some sort of consumer product that will make some person's life more efficient.  And the promise of that increased efficiency should have meant more free time for that person to do things for themselves.  Play with their kids,  wash the car, see a movie,  or do art.

But it isn't working out that way.  Society is using the increased efficiency to get more out of the next person.  More lines of type per hour.  More lines of code per day.  More products more quickly to the marketplace.  Cameras that autofocus faster and have aquarium modes. More profits to the shareholders. More stuff.

Cellphones seemed like such a good idea.  They would free us from the umbilical cord that tethered us to the desk or to the house.  But it didn't really work out that way.  Faceless corporations found that they could get more "free" work out of their workers by using a virtual umbilical cord that keeps workers connected to their offices nearly continuously.  And injects a sensibility that there's duty to make the job one's life.

And please, make no mistake, when I say workers I don't mean it in the old communist way:  as a description of the uniformed factory people who made things with their hands or dug for coal.  When I say workers now I also mean the lawyers and executives and nearly anyone who has a job working for anyone other than themselves.

I've watched the progressive strangling of people's time by new technology.  Executive dads sitting in the bleachers frantically jabbing at Blackberries with their thumbs trying to get in front of a new "issue" while little Johnny makes a soccer goal that dad doesn't catch.  I watched three investors glued to their iPhone screens in the middle of a play and wondered why they'd taken the time to come to the theater.  You could quiz them and they wouldn't know whether they sat thru "Oklahoma" or "Romeo and Juliet".

Everyday I watch couples at restaurants staring into their screens instead of each other's eyes.  They seem afraid that they'll miss something.  That the world will introduce the next miracle and they want to be in on the genesis and get the announcement.  So much so that they miss all the important stuff.

So, efficiency was supposed to give us time to exercise and relax and invent and enjoy and do our own art.  But what it's really done is increase the work week of the fully employed, robbed them of their own un-contracted leisure time, convinced people that a salaried position means 24/7 contact (and mindshare) and left them ragged and unable to concentrate on the present and the  here and now.  It robs them of living life as it's happening.

And the ability to process great volumes of information hasn't done much for us either, as far as I can tell.   May be it's good for predicting sales or elections.  Data mining can't stop hurricanes or earthquakes but endless data availability progressively robs us of our privacy and financial security.

But none of that really bothers me.  I understand better than you might think that the nature of western man is constant innovation---for good or bad.  No, what bothers me is that we've used all these tools to turn our lives into something that's measured based on productivity.   Volume.  Throughput.

I heard a great actor speak two days ago.  He defined art.  It's not about which lens renders hairs on the kitty photo the sharpest or who's got the best toys.  And it's certainly not measurable.  He defined art in this way:  Art teaches us what it  is to be human.

But this is a problem because art is notorious for being unmeasurable.  And in a society that values ranking and measuring above all else it gives one the feeling that art, which teaches us what it is to be human, is being replaced more and more by craft just for the sake of craft.  And the craft is powered more and more by precision, performance and production and less and less by ideas and translations of human experience.

It starts in school.  We, as a society, need to give as much weight to the study of art and art history, music and drama as we do the math and science courses.  We need to make sure our kids are as content literate as they are process literate.  I can assure you that, as technology becomes more and more pervasive the real value; the "gold",  will be content.

Multitasking?  I've got a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in.....

My photo session with a very famous attorney.

Charles Alan Wright.  Here's his profile on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Alan_Wright

The short version.  One of the foremost authorities on constitutional law, ever.  Attorney for president Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate hearings.  And so much more.  An amazing figure in an amazingly profession.

I was hired by Private Clubs Magazine ( an American Express publication for Platinum Card Members) to photograph Mr. Wright.  This was back in the days (mid-1990's) when you could actually get a legend on the phone and set up the logistics directly.  Because of his very busy schedule he requested that we shoot at his office in the University of Texas Law School.  Fine with me.  I liked working on location.

I've always been a contrarian and this day was no different.  While I contemplated packing for the short trip from my studio in downtown Austin to the UT campus I looked over a drawer full of Hasselblad cameras and half a dozen Zeiss lenses.  I also contemplated taking my Profoto power packs or a set of monolights.  In the end I gave in to my "on again/off again" infatuation with my old, twin lens Rolleiflex cameras.  One to use and one to sit in the case as backup.  Not the most intuitive choice for a premium assignment with a premium magazine.  Just to do some "reverse" gilding of the lillies I passed on the studio lighting and grabbed an old Metz "potato masher" flash, a Vivitar 285 flash, a shoot thru umbrella and a couple of small light stands.  Reminder:  This was a decade before the word "Strobist" showed up in our collective vocabulary.....

Everything fit in two bags.

I showed up and we chatted for a few minutes.  We decided to use his office as our studio.  He walked down the hall for a few minutes to make a few phone calls and when he came back I had my lights set up, the optical slave tested and everything carefully metered.  No polaroid and no instant preview.

The first thing he remarked about when he returned was the Rollei cameras.  He knew all about em.  Had friends who'd shot with the for decades.  Then he asked me where to sit and what to do.  I had just done a job for another magazine about a friend of Mr. Wright and we talked about the famous banker for a few minutes.  When I saw expressions I liked I asked him to "hold" and I clicked the shutter.

I loaded a new roll after every 12 frames and, in the intervening time, we talked about law and presidential power.  He was a republican and I a democrat but that was a time when people could hold different opinions and still have the benefit of mutual respect.  I shot three rolls of twelve exposure film and then our time was up.  The magazine picked and ran the close up.  I like the medium distance shot.

At the time it was just another assignment but over time I've come to understand the stature of Charles Alan Wright and I marvel that he was so patient and accessible.

Why did I choose to use "lesser" gear to do the shot?  I knew I wouldn't have time to spend on fancy lighting set-ups and I knew that in the small law offices I wouldn't have the option to go long and compress and still get a feel for the office.  I'd just read a book by Fritz Henle, published in the 1960's and marveled that he was able to do an incredibly wide range of images, all with the Rollei twin lens cameras.

Back in the pre-paradigm days we did things a bit differently than what gets done now.  I shot with ISO 100 transparency film which was pretty unforgiving where exposure was concerned.  We always metered carefully.  We didn't have RAW to save our butts.  Going "sans" Polaroid was a bit of hubris but I was on a roll.  Now we'd cover it with 200 frames in raw.  Back then we had more confidence.

One person asked me why I had him sit for the photos.  I remembered that he was about six foot three inches tall and, with the waist level finder on the Rollei I would have had to be on a ladder to pull off the right camera/subject elevation.  At five feet eight inches tall I've stood on enough boxes, thank you.

Sometimes we take a photograph because we just love the subject so much.

Ben was so young when I took this.  It was so long ago.  We'd moved into the house the year before and I'd just bought the white chair and the ottoman Ben was sitting on.  To Ben's left is a set of French doors and soft, late afternoon open shade flowed through the big windows.  Ben was sitting and listening to his mother read something like "Winnie the Pooh" or something by Dr. Seuss.  I walked in and saw the light floating across Ben.  I had a Contax G2 with the 45mm lens over my shoulder.  I'm pretty sure I had a roll of Tri-X inside (what else could it have been?)

I smiled and slowed down as I came thru the door.  I got down on my knees to get to Ben's level and pulled the camera up to my face.  I know the meter would read "hot" because the back wall was out of the light stream.  The wall was a gold color.  I instinctively dialed in a minus 1.3 stops but that sounds a bit disingenuous as I write it.  The reality is that the "dialing in" was in my brain.  The camera was set in manual so the "dialing" was more an increase in shutter speed over the meter indication.  I shot three or four frames and, at first, Ben was intrigued by the whole process.  Then he started moving and, with the light levels being what they were, I could no longer freeze action.

The orignal frame has more on each side.  There's an unmade bed to the left of the frame but the white of the sheets was too much of a lure for my eyes so I chopped it off.  That left the right side unbalanced and showed too much of the white chair so I chopped that off too.  Sadly,  this print was made long after I gave up my black and white darkroom so I scanned it with a Nikon LS 4000 scanner and had it output on a Fujix printer.  Had I still had ready access to a darkroom I would have printed it on a multigrade paper and tweaked the contrast in little areas while softening the edges.  The grain would also have been more demure.

I can't really articulate why I think this is a wonderful photograph beyond the biographical reality that it is my own kid.  Since he keeps getting better and better the old print somehow gets better and better to me as well.  I should have the print mounted and framed and hanging somewhere nice.  In reality it is tacked up just over the top of my monitor.....right next to my favorite photograph of his mother, my wife.

The prints are a reality check.  What's important in life?  Has technology made a difference in the quality of my work? (no.)  Do I now understand a bit better why people want family portraits and photographs of THEIR kids? (absolutely.)  Can I do as well with current cameras? (not to date.)  The prints sit where they sit so I can compare current work against known quantities.  While I might have honed my technical chops over time I understand that emotional chops are not time-linear.  Everything gets created in context.

It's important to surround yourself with a work you've done that you really like.  It inspires you to try and try again.

Predicting the past is easy. The future, less so.

I had an interesting lunch with a friend today at Maudie's Mexican Food Restaurant on Lake Shore Blvd. today.  It was an interesting lunch because my  friend, whom I'll call Bob, works at a mid sized public relations agency.  He actually owns his own creative company providing art direction, creative direction and ad design to the surrounding firm.  I love having lunch with Bob because he works with top clients from as far away as Japan and, while he's closer to my age, he is surrounded by 20, 30 and 40 year olds every single day.  We talked about family and hobbies and funny stuff that happens and then we got down to the meat of the meeting:  What's going to happen next year?  Where is the ad business going?  What will the trends be?

Here's something interesting.  Bob was a very early iPad adapter.  His justification for purchasing it was as a presentation device.  Now he admits that the screen is too small and, given a choice, all (regardless of age) of his clients prefer to see presentations and portfolios as PRINTS.  So last century.....but that's the way things go.  Big prints.  It's the wave of the future.   Also, little prints.

We've both been watching magazines come back strong.  We agreed that perhaps all the marketers overshot the whole "everything will end up on the web" pitch.  Seems that clients really do want audited results, tangible proof of circulation,  direct feedback and so much more.  While magazines folding up their tents make the most splash in the gossip forums the reality is that there are more titles than ever before and the ad revenues to the standing players are recovering quickly.  Amazing.  Two years ago we were ready to leave them for dead.  Prediction?  A lot more paid placement in print and direct mail, supported by the web.  That means designers need to dust off their "print chops" and remember how to manage color for paper and all that other stuff.  But now clients want to measure all this stuff.  And remember, you'll need better technique for print.  The file are much bigger and the details and faults are ten times as obvious.

And, who ever guessed that this would happen? Holiday parties are back with a vengence.  Wheeeeeeeee.  And they're actually buying nice wine and good food.

So, what the heck does that have to do with the photo above?  And why is all out of focus?  And why is everything blurry?

I was walking around the train station in Rome with my Mamiya 6 camera.  I'd been taking photos all over the place all day long and I was getting ready to meander back to my hotel.  I noticed how Italian business guys fell into two strata when crossing the station.  If they were in groups of two or more they'd walk slowly and chat and gesture.  When they were alone they would do this brisk walk.  I like the brisk walk so I waited around until a likely candidate emerged from the crowds and headed by me.  I wasn't paying attention to exposure like I usually do.  I'd set the camera to auto exposure.  I lifted it up to my eye and waited for the right moment and then shot.  I could tell as I heard the slightly extended action of the shutter that I was down in the 1/8th to 1/15th second exposure zone.  Yep.  I screwed up.  I think.

But much later I printed this negative and I started to like the feeling of motion.  I started to like the way all of the background mushed together.  I liked the way Tri-X handled the grey tones and the highlights. But I like most of all the energy of the man heading home.  It's okay to do things wrong.  It's okay if you're the only one who likes them.  But it all goes into the learning mix.

Getting back to basics.

Our fragmented culture has inculcated us with the fallacious idea that we should all be Renaissance Men and Renaissance Women.  We should be, all at once, a writer, engineer, artist, photographer, triathlete, movie critic, economist, political expert and social critic.  Burrowing down, the faux Renaissance culture makes photographers feel like they should be masters of taking any kind of photograph, experts in all facets and styles of postproduction and retouching, they should be masters of sales and they should cast their brand far and wide thru dominance in "social networks".

So now we have lots and lots and lots of people tossing around lots of half baked ideas and meaningless, endlessly repeated prattle while snapping mostly vacuous and banal photographs and posting a huge melange of crap in every conceivable media.  As long as it's free.

But far from being a distant and dispassionate observers I have to readily agree that I'm as culpable as the next guy.  I've gone from being a regional corporate photographer who was generally thought to be a good portrait photographer to being quoted as an expert about lenses on DPreview.  I've pontificated so often about lighting on Flickr that I'm considered by some to be an expert there.  But it's all a big joke.  And I'm bursting my own balloon before someone else does it for me.

Mea Culpa.  I got swept up the in the supposed paradigm shift.  But in the end the web and all this noise is just the "pet rock" on the TV of a new generation. Bell bottom trousers.  Social networking is a desperate attempt at personal marketing in a time when jobs are shifting from employee to contractor and people are scared to death they'll be left behind.

I started posting on Facebook because one of my clients acted shocked that I wasn't on Facebook.  What if I miss an invitation to an event?  Fat chance.  I'm sure the invitation will be in the massive amounts of e-mail we look thru every day.  And if I did miss an invitation would the world end?  I'm hosting a party for my swimmer buddies on December the 11th.  To date I've gotten 32 invitations to other events being held on the same evening.  The problem isn't missing an invitation but weighing which ones to accept.

I started this blog to help sell my four books (please buy all four for everyone on your list) but no one really likes talking about books so I started writing about other stuff.   And now I write about other stuff all the time.

I started posting to Twitter to bring more readers to my blog.  But Twitter is so weird and disjointed that in the months and months I've tried to decipher it I still can't see how anyone gets any value from it.

I know how to do two things well.  I can take portraits.  I can write words that flow (most times) and make sense.  That's it.  I don't know more than the rest of us about philosophy.  I don't know much more about lenses than anyone else and what little I know either comes from actually shooting them or from taking the time to read more anecdotal stuff on the web and re-interpret (regurgitate) it.  What I know about camera sensors is meaningless and irrelevant.  If I had more understanding about economics than the rest of you out there I sure wouldn't be trying to make a living as a writer and photographer.

I taught workshops last year.  But it's hard to take workshops seriously when I think that everyone should just take their money and go someplace exciting and shoot on their own.    If you've got a couple weeks and $6000 burning a hole in your pocket just get on a damn plane and go to Istanbul or St. Petersburg and shoot from sun up till your last daily minutes of consciousness.  Then you'll have something to show off.  Something you might actually want to print.  All you need to know about handling your camera is in the owner's manual.  The rest, to reiterated my own tired quote, is just "time in the water."

So, what do I do now with the realization that I'm not smarter than most other people.  Not a wildly stellar, superstar photographer, not a brilliant philosopher or  economist.  What do I do with the realization that blogs don't sell books.  That Twitter doesn't sell blogs.  That I don't want to spend precious hours every day doing "rah!-rah!"  for myself about myself?

How about I turn off Flickr and Twitter and Facebook and do what's always worked well for me?  That would be taking photographs of people in my own style.  Writing stuff I know about.  And swimming enough laps everyday so that I can eat pizza once a week and a glass of wine or two and not gain weight.  That sounds pretty good to me.  And marketing?  Two postcards and $500 in postage brought in more money for me in a handful of jobs this year than all the web marketing I've done in five years.

Will I keep blogging?  Yeah, but I'm only interested in talking about street photography and portraits.  I'll leave it to someone else to sell cameras and books and lights and stuff.  I just want to know how to use them to make art.  And then I'll be happy to talk about art.

Two things I do well:  Portraits.  Words.  One thing I'm okay at and enjoy: Swimming.

I'd love to be a real Renaissance Man but it makes me tired just thinking of all the stuff I would need to be able to do.  No one has that kind of time.  Might as well be doing what you really love.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:







Yesterday was Thanksgiving.  We had a houseful of people.  My parents were here and Belinda's parents, too.  Nieces and nephews and new additions to the family.  Belinda and I teamed up in the kitchen and put out some nice food.  My mom brought some fun wine, even three bottles of my favorite white wine, Conundrum, from Caymus Vineyards.  Everyone was happy and the day went smoothly.  I was so proud of my kid, Ben (you've seen his photo many times....).  We have a three step drop from the kitchen to the dining room and we were serving buffet style.  My dad is in his 80's and walks with a cane.  Ben waited until my dad filled his plate and then walked over and quietly offered to carry his plate to the table.

Most of our family lives in San Antonio and everyone headed back home in the late afternoon and early evening.  Ben got invited to go surfing, down in Port Aransas, with family friends and he was gone by 6:30 pm.  Once Belinda and I finished washing pots and pans and dishes we decided to watch a movie from Netflix and we settled on a mindless romantic comedy called, "When in Rome."

Near the end of the movie the female protagonist is trying to decide if she should take the risk and marry her new boyfriend.  Her father threw out a line and I grabbed for a Post-It (tm) pad and a pen.  It's a line that resonated with me like a bell.  He said,  "The Passion is in the risk."


That's pretty much the culmination or distillation of what I've been trying to say here for the past two years.  The magic dust that makes art work is the passion you bring to it.  And the passion is proportional to the risk required.  I've included two photographs to illustrate my point.  In the top photo I'm photographing life in the Termini train station in Rome.  I'm determined to get a shot of the baggage handlers.  I go in head first because I know they may (and did) object and I'd only get one chance.  Before I started I thought that there might be a heightened chance of confrontation.  There's a certain risk in a direct, "looking into the eyes" presentation.  I had to be quick with my technique.  I could be embarrassed if they got pissed off and made a scene.  All that stuff that goes thru your mind when you're out of your own neighborhood, out of your demographic and out of your own culture.  But you move forward because you embrace that level of risk and deem it acceptable for the potential reward.  That being said, this isn't my favorite photo.  But each time you risk you get more comfortable with the risk and you understand that something moves you to do this thing that's beyond a staid calculus of accrual.

In the arts the passion is never truly about money.  It may be about fame and with fame may come money but in reality the arts are about the passion.  When I step out the door I'm looking for a photograph that makes me feel something out of the ordinary.  Art is never a reaffirmation of the value of the ordinary.

The second photograph is passionless.  We make these all the time.  It's a quick, furtive shot that shows nothing but the back of one person and the profile of another.  There's no engagement.  There's little passion.  And when you look at this image you tend to pass it by because it's something you've seen a hundred or a thousand times before from every photographer who shoots in the street.  There's little reward because there's little risk.  And without the risk there's no passion.  And the passion is what gets transmitted to the viewer.

But the idea that The Passion is in the risk goes way beyond street shooting or even just the practice of the arts.  In fact, I think the slow building of passion comes with taking multiple levels of risk that correspond with access to the passion.   An example.  If you want to create great work in any art it takes constant practice.  I've used the analogy of competitive swimming as an example.  If you want to be a great surgeon you have to use those brain and hand skills all the time or you get rusty.  I have many friends who are doctors and when they need to have a surgical procedure done they never settle for the guy who's done a couple hundred successful procedures they search out the guy who's done thousands of successful procedures because they know that with practice comes expertise.  The guy who's done 2,000 procedures has dealt with every permutation.  In art parlance, he's become a "master".  By the same token I don't think photographers can be at the top of their art unless they live it with the same "hands on" intensity.  If they pick up the camera every once in a while they just aren't fluid enough to make great art.  And it's not just knowing where the buttons are and when to push them....for a people photographer it's also about knowing how to work with people in a fluid way.

So, that means that it's almost impossible to do photography at a passionate level and still have the time and energy for a real job.  And there's the risk.  Freelance photography gives you the time but it also delivers risk.  And if you can accept that risk and move forward even with the knowledge that you may end up hungry and poor, but you still feel compelled to move that way then you may be driven by your passion and that passion may reward you with art you can love.

Beyond that, risk also means removing yourself from a comfortable situation to an uncomfortable situation that elicits responses in a photo which in turn make it interesting to you and your wider audience.

The ultimate risk is working when you are the only audience.  When you stop caring what other people think about your work and you make work that is uninflected by the subtle pressure of others.  In this arena the risk of total isolation is so strong that only the most courageous passion will drive sane people forward.  It's a level I've not achieved and I'm not sure I can.  I have too many responsibilities.  I have too much to lose to risk everything.  And yet it's something I am jealous of in other photographers.

The person who finds a $100 bill on the street is just a bit richer.  The person who pulls a diamond from the jaws of a pissed off, deadly dragon has a story to tell for the rest of his life.  And he creates a legend.

That's what the few real artists in our lives do.  They battle metaphorical dragons that come complete with real risks.  They've already signed a blanket waiver with life and they're ready to strap in and take the ride.  They're the test pilots and we're waiting for someone to come along and pressurize the cabin.

So.  Why have I decided to work with LED lights in the last few months?  Do I think the results will be technically better than what I can get with state of the art flash equipment?  No.  But I know the results will be different.  I know that some stuff will be riskier (like subject motion and color correction) but I know that intangible and tangible differences in the way portrait subjects respond and react makes the photographs different and it's a risk with a return.

If I know how to do a technique forward and backward why do I constantly abandoned the safe techniques and try new stuff?  Because the risk of maybe failing makes the process more exciting.  If the risk pays off I have something that's new and maybe closer to my vision of what an image should be.  If I fail I learn and I come back and try again.

If I never try then I master one technique and use it, safely, over and over again until it's so stale and old that no one ever wants to see it again and I've squandered years and years when I could have been investigating and playing and failing and succeeding and doing new stuff.

The turn over of gear is open to many interpretations but unlike most amateur practitioners I seem to go from the highest iteration of equipment to the lowest instead of the other way around.  I'll start with a Canon 5Dmk2 and slide down the product scale where the risk is greater because it's more fun to work without a safety net.   Buying better and better gear is a way of trying to manage risk.  And managing risks is the perfect way to suck the absolute passion out of your art.  Perfect risk management means sitting in a bunker with the air filters on high.  But nothing moves forward that way.

Here's an odd thought.  One posited by a character in Stephen Pressfield's magnificent book, The Gates of Fire,  "What is the opposite of fear?"  The eventual answer?   "Love."

We work through the fear that everyone feels.  Fear is a very uncomfortable emotion.  Most people feel fear and move away from the thing that made them feel fearful.  Or they work to contain the process or action that caused the fear.  Some work through the fear to feel the love.  The work is the love.  The process is the fear,  The fear is the risk.  And the risk is the thing that artists embrace.  And that's what makes the best work work.  Knowing that you might fail.

Someone asked me the other day if being 55 and in a field that seems to be falling apart and crashing and burning scared me.  Yes.  I'm as scared as I can be.  But not because I won't make money.  I'm scared that I won't have the time and the courage to keep going out every day and doing something that rational people don't do.  Every time I go out and shoot it scares me.  And every time I go out and ignore the fear I get into zone and the photos get better and better.  When I stop getting scared the work falls apart.

The scariest moments for me are the days when I wake up and I've lost the determination to go out and try it all over again.....as if for the first time.  When I'm working from a "playbook" of greatest hits I know that it's over.  The passion is gone.  It's time to stop.  But the scariest thing of all is that all the inspiration and vision and passion comes from a well within.  There's no way to inspiration other than to wake up and want.  And  to be willing to accept the risk that creates the passion.  And that's why it's worth it not to copy anyone else but to create your own art and take your own risks.  Because:


The passion and the risk are different for everyone.  And so are the rewards.  And that's why people talk about gear instead.  Because it's so hard to say why you do what you do.  And it will be different for you.

added at 5:22 pm.
I never did get around to explaining why I took the image of the guys in the train station.  Let me go thru that process and see if I can put it into words.  We really don't have a train station here in Austin.  The closest we have is an airport and it was built in the last ten years and doesn't look much different than a nice strip mall with a bunch more chairs.  I have a romantic nostalgia for train travel.  But even more to the point, I  have a bittersweet memory of a time when travel was civilized and special and much, much less stressful.  The guys in the top photo are remnants of that earlier time.  It was a time in which you and and your family could travel for weeks  with multiple suit cases.  You would have suits and ties and nice shoes to wear to fancy restaurants.  Hiking boots and heavy jackets for romps through the Alpine plains outside of Chamonix and you would have also packed some casual clothes for evenings wandering through the old neighborhoods of Rome.  You'd find a nice cafe and have hot chocolate while your parents enjoyed a few glasses of wine and some savory treats.

And it was all made possible by men like these in the train stations and airports who would take care of the logistics of moving your heavy cases from the train to the to taxi's and back again.  And you were pretty sure they worked for tips and they worked hard every time a train came in.  They were freelancers like you are now.  Somedays no one would want to pay for their help.  Other days the work would be non-stop.  There were no guarantees.  No safety net.  But it was what they knew how to do.

And slowly all these men have have faded into oblivion as wheeled totes and "carry on" only became the vogue.  And now we  travel with only what we can carry and we're more like overnight visitors than real travelers.  But at the same time these guys were brusk and sometimes unlikeable, with a street smart cynicism that put you on your guard.  And there are now no more young porters.  It's a dying art.  Like dye transfer or black and white darkroom printing.  And it's sad when an era passes.

And they know it's only a matter of time before their knees give out and their lungs protest the decades of smoking and they won't be able to lift the heavy boxes that often replace the luxe leather suitcases and trunks.  And they're pissed.  And resigned.  And how can I get all those emotions and all those thoughts into something as insubstantial as a photograph?

I look over and see the scene come together.  They are resting on the cart, looking for customers.  They are smoking.  I walk closer.  I've already set my Mamiya 6 camera to the exposure I think the scene offers.  I bring the camera to my eye to fine tune the focus with my rangefinder.  The man raises his hand and as he starts to wag his finger I click.  Then I drop the camera down and gesture that I get it.  I understand.  I won't shoot another frame.  I'll hope I have what I want and spare them the indignity of overt and obvious study.  Young life swirls around them.  One man smiles in a resigned way.  Two others continue their conversation, oblivious of my transgression.  And the man with the wagging finger follows me with his eyes, just to make sure I got the message.  Yes.  I did.  I got the whole message.

When I develop the negative I wish I'd gotten closer.  Much closer.  But cropping is not the same.  I wish I'd gotten closer and wider.  The 55 instead of the 75.  But I got what I got and I learned that my reticence to walk in closer with the wider lens is like a slap to the face and I know next time I'll take the risk or not take the photograph at all.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:






The 35mm lens and why no one should care if it's the best in the world or not.

I wrote a little piece the other day about using a couple of new lenses on the Canon 7D.  And in the past few weeks I've also talked about buying and using two different macro lenses, that, at first glance, seem to be so close as to not make too much of a difference.  People seem adamant about two things in response to my idle chatter about cameras and lenses.  First, they want me to proclaim definitively which one is best.  And then, secondly, they want me to stick with whatever proclamation I've made thru thick and think, no matter what else comes on to the market.

Some readers want me to write more about the Olympus Pen cameras.  Others are still chagrined about my divestiture of most Nikon stuff.  Others want me to choose between one of those "damn" ever propagating 50mm lenses and be done with it.

And it's made me think that there must be two different schools when it comes to buying and using gear. The first school (which I am not part of......) holds that there's one ultimate camera and in each focal length, one ultimate lens.  The people in this school take no prisoners.  No holds are barred.  If you buy a  Canon G12 and you like it you're stuck until you find it's superior replacement at which time you are obligated to acquire the new camera and banish the older one to the tender mercies of the used market.

The other school of thought is dominated by indecision and the fear of potential regret.  We buy what we think will be a good and workable camera or system and learn why we like it and why we don't.  And then, instead of replacing it when it's myriad faults are revealed to us we tend to hold onto the things we liked about the camera or lens or system and then go out and supplement it with something that complements it.  In the days of film cameras this was an enticing strategy on a number of levels.  We'd buy a Nikon F5 system to shoot events and sports.  But we'd decide that we needed more resolution and smoother tones for portraiture so we'd buy a Hasselblad system and use it in the studio.  If we found ourselves doing more and more product work we'd buy a decent 4x5 system and the holy trinity of view camera lenses and use that as well.  Finally, because we all wanted to be cool we'd buy the ultimate "carry it with you everywhere" camera, the Leica M(X) and.......carry it with us everywhere.

But buying a complementary system didn't give us an apparent license to get rid of the first system or, in turn, the second system.  And often, because the cameras did not go out of fashion and were rarely superseded over the course of a decade, they held their value very, very well.  I shot with a Leica M3 that I bought with a 50mm Summicron lens for over ten years.  When I bought the M3 it was considered pretty pedestrian and cost me about $400 with the lens.  Ten years later I sold it to buy some newer Leica cameras and it fetched $1200 without the lens.  Prices had gone up.  The supply had gone down.

When I made the somewhat ill-fated decision to sell off my Hasselblad gear and answer the siren call of the Rollei medium format SLR system I was able to break even on my original H-blad purchases as well.

Digital changed a lot of things.  It changed a lot of buying patterns.  As more and more amateurs entered the higher end of digital it seemed that budgets would only stretch to one camera at a time.  And dealing with the used market was like playing musical chairs.  When new models were rumored people began to undertake a complicated calculus to figure out when to divest themselves of their current body in time to be ready to buy the newest body with the least amount of fiscal damage.

This "all and nothing" approach, I think, is mostly responsible for the search for perfection that goes on.  If a person is going to limit themselves to one camera at a time they logically want to find the body that will do the most for the them for the longest period of time.  The importance of not making a buying "mistake" becomes paramount.  But it's counter-logical.  No camera currently on the market is superior on all counts and all of them will, by most standards, became obsolete within a year or so.

I have a lot of friends who are professional photographers and they tend to be more "big tent" about cameras.  They find one they like and keep it around until it's resale value has fallen so far that it makes more sense to keep using it than to get rid of it.  And what I'm constantly reminded of when I survey the commercial market is the fact that, inexorably, the images we created are headed to the web the majority of the time.  The technical requirements of the final users really don't change nearly as quickly as the model introductions of the manufacturers!

I guess the assumption of my readers, who wring their hands at my purchase of Canon gear over new Olympus gear, is that I've abandoned the Olympus brand altogether.  Of course it's not true.  They're still in the tool box.  I've just decided that the Pens are the Olympus cameras I like shooting with the best.  I've thinned out my collection of E cameras and lenses but I still have several bodies in that niche as well as a handful of lenses.  But the point is that I keep cherry picking the cameras that I've enjoyed shooting with over the years and they rarely get put out to pasture.  The Kodak bodies are a good example.  I still find reasons to dust off the DCS 760 and the SLR/n, not because either of them are great at high ISO's or shoot at ten frames per second but because they have their own color palette and have a long toe and a long shoulder that makes them superb for shooting portraits.  It's all about the curves not necessarily about the DR.  It was the same in film.  People liked Tri-X best because it had a long and graceful curve from the first indication of detail in the shadows to the last vaporous dew drops of highlight detail.  The curve made the tonality, not the dynamic range.  Same with digital cameras.

I have a Sony R1 which is pretty remarkable.  Every job I ever shot with it was lucky.  No one should get rid of their lucky camera!  And ditto with my Olympus e1.  Nice curves, both physically and electronically.....

But the bottom line is that the pursuit of the best is pointless.  DXOLabs just did a paper on an interesting topic.  They discovered in their testing that most of the benefits of fast lenses are lost to digital cameras when you open up the lenses past f4.  Imagine that!  It doesn't get any brighter in the pixel wells.  Why does the camera exposure go up?  They surmise that camera companies, knowing that you aren't getting the f-stops you're paying for ramp up the file gain to compensate.  That of course gives you more noise and may explain why their tests show that the Canon 85mm 1.8, for example, is more highly rated for ultimate image quality than the much more expensive 85mm 1.1.2 L lens.  Interesting.

In the end it's all a compromise.  I have a friend who shoots with a Nikon D3x and all the best Nikon glass.  But he hates his tripod and shoots everything handheld.  He's over 50 and drinks coffee.  Do you think that sensor is delivering $8,000 worth of magic?  Maybe.  I have another friend who does the same thing in the Canon system.  He knows his technique but like all of us it goes down the drain as the day and enthusiasm fades.

I've been looking over the 136,000+ images I have in my Lightroom Catalogs lately.  I found some I shot in Madrid back in 2000 with a Nikon 990 point and shoot camera.  It had a whopping 3.4 megapixels of resolution.  The files, on the screen, look great.  I looked at some exterior architectural stuff and some corporate portraits we shot with the Olympus e-10 (4 megapixels) and they looked great.  In fact, if you mix it all up and look at the work over the decade of digital the only time you see differences is when we tried to go beyond the safe ISO of our times or when we tried to enlarge past a certain point.  I don't see "leaps and bounds" improvements in the "bread and butter" space of flash lit headshots, daylight lit architecture and landscapes.  If anything there are some color nuances that I think have been abandoned in the pursuit of greater accuracy which were more emotionally satisfying in their flawed iteration.

So, back to the new lenses.  Let's try this on for size....according to Leica lens expert, Erwin Puts, when you double the diameter of a lens element (critical to the making of faster lenses) you increase by a factor of 8X the complexity of manufacture.  Tolerances become much more critical.  In fact, it is so much easier to make a perfect f4 prime lens than it is to make a decent f1.4 lens for ten times the price that many of the f4 primes from earlier days from Nikon, Canon and Leica still rival the latest "L" glass and "gold ring" glass from Canon and Nikon.  If we take as a given that the race for smaller and smaller pixel sites (needed to increase pixel count) has marginalized the light gathering capabilities of the sensor at anything wider than f4 and that f4 lenses can be made to incredible standards less expensively, then I've got to wonder at why so many people are buy fast glass.  If the cameras ramp up the exposure gain, pre-raw conversion, then the noise equals out.  Doesn't matter if you shoot at 1.4 or 4 the noise characteristics might be the same.  Again, according to DXO the $1300 Canon 50mm 1.2 is about as good at f2.8 as the $90 "nifty fifty".  So what's the point?

Here's the point.  All of the lenses have some signature that makes them output photographs that look a certain way.  The 35mm Summilux Aspheric from Leica, when used on a camera with big pixels, can drop out a background and keep a foreground very sharp.  The Nikon D700 is almost as sharp as the Canon 5dmk2 in actual use because the bigger pixels make more efficient use of the output of the lenses.  The 35mm Canon lens I referenced yesterday has pretty much the same performance at f4 and smaller as it's $1500 brother.  The Canon 85mm 1.8 (which I own) is rated higher than the 85mm 1.1.2 (which I used to own back in the film days.....).  So ultimately there is no right or wrong.  We get to pick which lens we want to use for what.  I picked the 35mm f2.0 because I know I'll use it mostly handheld and mostly around f4.  In that capacity it will be about as good as the more expensive but faster lens.  For the difference in price I can also own a couple of zoom lenses that also cover the 35mm focal length.

I have a bunch of different 50mm lenses because they all do different stuff well.  I want a beater to put on the front of an 60D for those days when I think the camera and lens might not make it back alive.  I want the 50mm Carl Zeiss lens for those times when I want a wider portrait lens on a 7D and I have a Nikon 50mm 1.1.2 with an adapter ring for the 5Dmk2 for those times when I think I want fast and sharp all at once.  And none of them is the ultimate lens.

Finally,  why do I have the 60mm Macro EFS and the 50mm Macro EF lenses, simultaneously.  Well.....because sometimes there is no logic.  You just want what you want and you buy it because life is short and it's fun to have toys.  And the 60 EFS is ostensibly optimized for the density of pixels in the cropped frame camera.  And it acts like a 90mm portrait lens on a cropped frame camera.  And the 50 Macro is a cheap legacy lens with really good performance that works really well with the full frame cameras.

If I took all the emotion out of my lens and camera preferences I'd have three boring L zooms that cover all the focal lengths I might shoot and I'd shoot them the same way all the time.  And if I did this business logically I'd find the job or type of job that pays the maximum amount with the minimum effort and I would do it over and over and over again.  But I hate working that way.  I love things to be different all the time.  I love to take chances.  I love to find new ways to do things and new ways to light things.

And it think it is this passionate curiosity that keeps my love of photography alive and by extension keeps my clients interested.  It's a tough business to be in.  Let's not make it tougher by adhering to pointless dogma and demanding an objective measure of perfection.  Art should be subjective and the choice of tools motivated more by intuition and impetuosity than some sort of rigorous spreadsheet of facts that tends to homogenize and rank our gear.  And then apply a value.

The value comes from the photographs well seen.  Not from the choice of tools.

Most people who read here say that they like me to explain why I do what I do.  But amazingly, when I talk about seeing or emotion or context I get no feedback.  Put up a tiny paean to a $300 lens and we get 20 comments in six hours.  And readership for weeks.  Not sure how I should handle it.  Not sure it really matters.  I am nothing if not capricious.  If I feel like buying a new lens (even if it's exactly like one I already own) I'll buy it.  And if I feel like writing about it you can pretty much count on me doing that too.

I guess you noticed.....I don't really do short blogs.  Another rule shot to hell.

Happy Thanksgiving!

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:






My continuing love affair.......with the Canon 7D. Enhanced by the 60mm efs and a few LED lights

I'm taking a risk today.  I'm posting from my laptop and the screen isn't nearly as well calibrated as the monitor in my office.  I'll assume this looks like my model, Selena, and that the flesh tones are somewhere in the ballpark.  Apologies if it's bright purple.....

I don't have a scientific method of measuring the different ways in which various cameras handle color, I just know what colors I like to see and always how I like the contrast of the files rendered.  Now I'll head into heretical territory.  I recently did a big job for an ad agency.  24 portraits in two days.  On site.  I used two cameras.  My main camera was a Canon 5Dmk2 with a 100mm f2 lens tacked onto the front.  The other camera was my old Kodak DSLR/n with an even older Nikon 135mm f2.8 on the business end.  The exercise went like this:  Shoot the bulk of the frames with the Canon camera and, when I felt like I had what I wanted, pull up the Kodak and shoot an additional ten frames.  All the frames were shot under the same lights,  Profoto monolights in the 600 w/s and 300 w/s varieties.  I used a gray Lastolite target and did a custom white balance for each of the cameras.  I shot both of them in RAW.  I processed both sets of files in Lightroom 3.0

And what to my wondering eyes did appear?  Softer, smoother, more accurate tonalities and colors out of the Kodak camera.  Much easier to post process into pleasing files.  And whether it was a different "shoulder/toe" curve parameter or just more dynamic range, the Kodak beat the snot out of the Canon 5d2 in terms of holding juicy detail in slight overexposures.  Now, if I really dig in and spend the time I can get the two cameras to look a lot a like but when I show the files as 12 by 18 inch prints my art director friends choose the Kodak prints every time.  Every time.  The Kodak came onto the market in 2004.  In camera years that's like a decade ago.  The Canon is barely 18 months old.  Amazing.

In it's defense the Canon 5d2 has great detail and for most things, very decent color.  But it was enough to shake my nascent confidence in Canon's supposed supremacy as a portrait camera.  So I was expecting the 7D from Canon to be no great shakes.  But I was wrong.  When I go thru the same process and do the same white balances with the 7D it creates files that, while not quite as detailed as the 5d2, are much more pleasing in the eyes of this portrait photographer.  And I'm still trying to figure out why that is.  It's a newer sensor but not by much.  They have the same Digic 4 processors.  And the lenses are the same.  But I guess it's one of those things I'll never have a solid metric for because I'm pretty sure the guys at Canon don't want to get into a dissing war between their various cameras.

Suffice it to say that I started shooting with the 7D more and more.  That moved me to buy an interesting lens, against my better judgement.  It's the 60mm macro, EFS.  EFS means that it only covers the optical circle of the Canon cropped frame cameras.  Won't even fit on the front of a 5D2.  But it just seemed like the perfect portrait focal length for the 7D and other cropped sensor cameras.  It's nice and small and fits on the body well.  Not too front heavy.  And it opens up to 2.8.  Here's a photo sample from last week:
It's shot at 3.2 and some slow shutter speed but it looks good and handles well.  The combination works for a lot of the faster, candid portraits I sometimes do and it doubles as a macro rig when I need to get close.  The other two shots in this blog were done with the 70-200mm f2 (non-IS) which I mentioned recently.  It's an incredibly good lens and, if someone handed me $2400 and asked me to buy myself another long zoom I'd pass right by the new 2.8 type two, snap up another $600 f4 and stick the rest into something else.

In a previous review I wrote at length about the handling of the 7D and the responsiveness of the auto focus but my recent romance with LED panels has caused me to think more about the color handling characteristics of various camera models instead of the more common threads of discussion which tend to center around resolution and dynamic range.  I've found that both the 7D and the new 60D are much better in AWB than any other Canon camera I've had the chance to handle.  Much better.  And when I'm in the studio shooting under the non-continuous spectrum of my wacky LED lights I find that the cameras, when left to their own devices, hit the proper white balance right off the mark, unlike the 5d2.  If you throw the Kodak I mentioned into the ring you'd have the opposite of the AWB Bell Curve.  In the absence of a custom white balance shooting with the Kodak is like shooting thru a kaleidoscope.

So I did a little reading to see what I could find out.  Here's the factoid that I'm hanging on to:  Both the 7D and the 60D make use of Canon's Intelligent Focus Color Luminosity metering system.  It's part of the autofocus system but it uses color sensors to more effectively understand what's in the  frame.  It's only a suspicion on my part but I believe that this new measurement tool is also somehow tied into the overall camera white balance tools and this gives the newer cameras an edge over the other cameras in the system that don't share this technology.

Let's talk about flash for a moment.  I know a lot of wedding photographers swear by their 5dmk2's and I can understand why.  It's a good camera with a sensor that's capable of capturing a lot of detail.  But when it comes to flash and autofocus in dimly lit venues I can't see why these photographers don't rush to pull the 7D out of their bags.  The flash performance is a full generation ahead of the 5d2.  The autofocus lock on is two generations better and probably on par with the system in the 1Dmk4.  The flash makes use of the same IFCL metering system that I talked about above and in combination with the flash exposure lock button flash becomes as easy as shooting Nikon.

I put the camera and 580 ex2 flash thru their paces in the dimly lit ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel last thurs. night.  Legendary attorney, Joe Jamail, took the podium in a crowded ballroom to give a speech about UT's president, Dr. Bill Powers.  Before he launched into his speech he squinted at the spotllights illuminating the small stage and asked, "Can you turn those darned things down?"  They did.  And it dropped the overall illumination a lot.  Even though Mr. Jamail was in a dark suit and the stage was backed with black curtains the camera/flash combination did a great job nailing the exposure using the FEL spot pre-metering and locking in the settings.  I try to take only a few flash shots because, no matter how discreet you try to be, it still gets annoying.  I switch over to a preset custom banks which changes my settings to 2800 K color temperature, ISO 3200, spot metering and "Camera Neutral" color setting.  And I will say that, with a little noise reduction edged in, the camera performs quite well at what would have been extreme nose bleed territory for a cropped frame camera only a year ago.......

So where does this new found appreciation put me in terms of grabbing cameras for assignment?  Well, if resolution, sharpness and final reproduction size are all critical my choice will be the 5D2, hands down.  If I have to get the tiniest slice of focus and put everything else out of focus I'll also grab for the same camera.  But if I can shoot under 1600 ISO, need fast AF, need good out of camera color balance and good white balance, and if handling is critical it's the 7D all the way.  With my 20,  my new 35 f2 and the 60mm macro EFS I've got a nice, small and light "classic" photojournalist's set up that doesn't break the bank.  Throw in a couple of wide ranging zooms like the 15-85 and the 70-200 f4 and a 60D as a back up body and I have system I'd feel comfortable with on a very large portion of my jobs.

Thank the photo dieties,  they all take the same batteries.  Just a few random observations from a week of daily shooting....

Lit with a single LED panel blasted (ha, ha) through a Chimera diffusion scrim.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions: