Minimalism as mainstream? Small cameras the new pro cameras? Is the world out of control, or just catching up?

Actor as rancher from a theater shoot.  It was an interesting time of experimentation for me.  I used mostly small fresnel spotlights to create shots like this.  Our exposures were down in the 1/4 to 1/30th second range so people had to stay still.  But the tradeoff for a bit more care was a lot more control...Camera: Hasselblad 501 c/m.  Lens:  150 Sonnar.  Film:  Tri-X.  Lights:  Desisti hot lights.

So I was at Holland Photo Lab on South Lamar Blvd. this morning.  I'd come via a circuitous route since the city of Austin has closed off most of the streets I normally navigate to have some sort of "rock" concert in the park for the next three days....  I dropped off my three rolls of Velvia 100f (a whopping 36 exposures, total) from my roadway project and I was waiting for someone to log in my film when this magazine caught my eye.  "Be A Minimalist."  the cover demands.

There are several articles in the magazine that gush about the move to use more "minimalist" gear in your lighting and shooting.  There's a breathless article about a shooter in Joplin who uses only an entry level DSLR with a kit lens and a couple of clamp lights from Walmart.  That's one of his shots on the cover (above).  Sometimes he even uses.......available light!!!!  Further into the guts of the magazine is a long "technical" article that explains how shooting with cameras aimed at rank amateurs can "make sense" for professional photographers.  It shows a chart with all sorts of entry level cameras including two I felt were odd choices, both because of price and also the capabilities of these weather proof and well regarded bodies.  Those were the Canon 7D and the Nikon D300s.  Seems not every photographer covers sports and needs superfast response and (AMAZING) not every professional photographer shoots in harsh environmental conditions that would require weather sealed cameras.

The magazine also had an article comparing cameras like the Olympus EP3 and the Leica XP-1, the Nex and the Fuji X-100.  And guess what?  These minimalist cameras are also capable of giving people "professional results."  It's been an educational morning for me to be sure.  I do seem to recall a couple books, one written in 2007 that suggest a Minimalist approach to lighting so I guess trends happen in different places at different speeds.

It's funny that we're so far into the digital space now and we're just getting permission from editorial writers to buy the kinds of tools that make the most sense for the vast majority of shooters.  They make a good point that none of the professional cameras from Canon (over $5,000) have LCD screens that are anywhere near as good or as high resolution as the simplest current Rebel.  That a camera with incredible specs and a low price (again, a Rebel T3i) is much, much more capable than the pro models from just two generations ago.  And that now camera innovation is measured in dog years.

I care and I don't care.  On the one hand the work I've done with my old and unchanging film cameras resonates strongly with me and my audiences.  On the other hand I've been able to make wonderful and joyous color studies and city detail studies with my Olympus EP2.  My desire for the EP3 had more to do with wanting to see how much sharper the sensor could be and whether I'd be able to trigger studio flashes with the built in flash than over the need for more resolution or more gimmicks (which seem to overwhelm most menus....).

I scanned a few transparencies for my roadway project this week in order to get buy-in and approval from my clients.  I was immediately struck with the differences between the digital I'd been shooting and the transparency film I shot.  The film images were more composed and rigorously constructed.  It's true that I like composing in a square but some of the credit has to go to the constant use of a tripod for medium format shooting.  The tripod slows you down.  When you slow down you think.  When you think you begin to tamp down your initial emotional response and start checking for details and boundaries.  In many ways tripod shots are more finished.  And, in that sense there's little difference between film and digital.  The second plank is the formal limitation of resources.  If you know you have 12 frames with which to be successful you do take the time to double check the edges of the frame, the setting of the aperture and the areas of depth of field in a much more rigorous way.  

Is one better than the other?  Is film better than digital?  Is the 35mm frame inferior to the large square?
No.  No.  And Yes.  For me the square trumps the elongated frame every time.  And that's the second reason I love the new mirrorless EVF driven cameras.  They give me the chance to work in digital but with the optional benefit of viewing, seeing and shooting in the square.  

Back to the shot at the top.  The interesting thing to me, when I think back to the session in which this image was created, is how much time we were "allowed" to spend in getting what was (for the theater) an experimental shoot.  We hadn't practiced with optically spotted hot lights over and over again.  In a way we were riffing off the content of the play which was a period piece set in old Texas.  We spent time putting up lights and looking at them.  Adding vaporous diffusion on the light, or half way between the light and the subject, or over just a portion of the light.  We were all working to the art instead of to a strict schedule.  We did five different portraits that evening and each one was customized for a different look and feel.  

Now when I shoot theater I end up shooting hundreds and hundreds of shots, whipping through them in Lightroom, making general color corrections and then converting and delivering high res Jpegs of nearly everything on DVD.  With the film project above I would go back to the studio, hand process the black and white negative film, come back the next day to make contact sheets, meet with the art director to select frames and then go back to the darkroom to make 11x14 inch fiber, black and white prints.

On this particular project I really liked the images so I suggested to the theater that we make larger (20 by 20 inches on 20 by 24 inch paper) prints and use Marshall's oil paints to hand color each print for lobby display.  Each print took about four hours to complete.  And days to dry.

I can't imagine, in this economy, and with the overwhelming ethos of digital "speed of light" project delivery, that I will ever be afforded this kind of time and seeming indulgence again.  But it wasn't necessarily driven by the client.  It was also driven by the process of making art.  And we're as guilty as buying into the panic over time resources as everyone else now.  We all seem hungry to finish the project at hand so we can stack up a few more projects and push the cash flow button over and over again.  And I get it.  We're all focused on the economy.  Maybe we all need to shift our focus back to art.......


Bruce Bordner said...

Does Art pay on time?

Sorry - couldn't resist that. People who go out to shoot aren't buying equipment or magazines... why should they be concerned for us? Is this still a surprise?

I agree that "taking time to get it right in the field" is nearly forgotten (in many things) and it can make all the difference. Why rush the most pleasurable part of imaging?

I just retired, so I can be philosophical now - I don't need to make money from photography, so now I can play! I did buy a 14mm as a graduation present, but I'm more interested in travel magazines...

On prints... are they viable now? No one is practiced at looking at a static image for any length of time. The main market seems to be other photographers. My son is taking a digiphoto class and they go into printing - it will be interesting to get the younger viewpoint. Maybe video slideshows instead... can we do 3D animation of a 2D photo to explore it? I've got so much to do...

Alan Fairley said...

Kirk, PLEASE stop posting these stories about how great shooting MF color is. If you get me to go back to shooting 4x5 color (which was $5 per shutter press between the film, processing and color contact of the neg, and that was 15 years ago),my wife will divorce me :-)
Seriously, it's great to have someone talking about actually THINKING about the shot instead of just machine-gunning away....

Chris Klug said...

The top image brought me back to my old days shooting theater publicity shots. I did the actor's head shots as well at the start of the season and didn't own my own lighting kit. So I flew in an electric or two and hung a few fresnels and lit the actors against a black drape. It was hard to beat that quality of light.

Low Budget Dave said...

It sounds like you are kind of sad that there is no longer time for artistic touches like hand-colored prints. Or if there is, people don't want to pay for it.

But all careers suffered the same economics. When computers were invented, everyone in every profession started asking for faster, cheaper, more accurate.

There are still clients for art (producing daguerreotypes or hand-colored business cards or whatever), but those are people who want to buy art.

But the vast majority of customers just want cheap and fast.

Welcome to Wal-Mart. May I direct you to the "art" department?

Ronald said...

That portrait of a "rancher" is one of the finest portraits I've seen you post yet, and that's saying something since they are all outstanding. Has a neat old-school Hollywood look to it.

As for art -- I just spent several hours today looking at oil paintings by Monet's, Renior's, Picasos, etc., etc.; and the most important lesson I took away is that they were simply true to the vision and motivation that motivated them. Same with this guy called Van Gogh. Unfortunately, very few of those gentlemen were all that commercially successful early in their careers, with the possible exception of Picaso. The impressionists were openly ridiculed, and had a hard time find a gallery to show their stuff.

Who knows? Maybe a few decades from now, the greatest work of this generation will be done via Hipstamatics and Holgas....no joke.

Anonymous said...

I would love to see the hand-colored photographs in person...I bet they are really something.