Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did only backwards and in heels.....

I laugh and shake my head when I hear about photographers who can't function without "fast" autofocus, total exposure automation and instant chimp-o-metric confirmation at all times.  It's painful to hear about professionals who can't cope with composition if they don't have a zoom lens on the front of their camera. I laugh derisively at people who think modern day "flash-ists"  invented basic techniques like balancing flash with ambient exposure or using back light.  And I especially "thumb my nose" at photographers who feel the need to travel with a big, pouty, noisy entourage.  Who the hell needs all those people around them these days?

I'm shooting some people in my studio tomorrow and I generally use that as an excuse to do some major cleaning up.  I've wiped away the stacks of stands and piles of power packs that were brought home and tossed into the corner after last week's long flurry of location photography.  I was going through a filing cabinet drawing, tossing out mementos of yesteryear in order to make room for future junk when I came across a contact sheet and a page of negatives.  Big, juicy, medium format color negatives.  ISO 100 Fuji Reala negatives, to be exact.  I remembered this shoot with my assistant, Anne.  We were setting up to do shots of Dell executives in various locations around their beautiful executive briefing center.

So I thought I'd pop a negative in the desktop scanner and see what it all looked like back then.  This was old school photography all the way.  Our assignment was to find five or six fun locations and then guide our executive thru each location in order to build a catalog of public relations shots the company could use for the next two years.  Anne was standing in for a test shot.  She's holding our medium format camera with a Polaroid test back on it.

Anne and I met at the studio in the dark part of the morning  to pack and get on the road to Round Rock.  That's where Dell's main offices are.  We carried along a Bronica SQai System which was a fun and inexpensive (by comparative standards) knock off of the venerable Hasselblad 500 series.  The system entailed three bodies,  waist level finders and hoods,  lenses from 50mm to 200mm, and eight 120 film backs.  We also carried a Polaroid back and a couple boxes of 100 ISO speed, black and white test film.  We used black and white for several reasons:  1.  It was a better match, tonally and exposure wise with the Fuji Reala film than was the color-roid.  2.  It was quicker to process.  Ready in 30 seconds under most temperatures.  3. It didn't generate discussions with clients about color.  Many a working photographer will tell you stories of hours spent fine tuning the color on the Polaroid tests they were shooting, in order to please the client, only to have the color be nowhere close on the film.  We pretty much knew what we were doing back then with light meters and such so the color part of the Polaroid wasn't very necessary.  Why open up a big can of worms if you don't need to?

We packed three or four Profoto monolights, with (OMG) optical slaves, and an equal number of stands and reflectors.  We also packed large and small soft boxes, some flags to flag off spill and a bunch of odds and ends.  In fact, we took everything we thought we might need if it would fit on our cart.  And a lot of stuff did.

Our basic modus operandi was to walk through the entire location first and make little sketches in a notebook about which sites and which angles we thought would work best.  Then we returned to site one and started setting up.  First thing is to find your angle and establish the subject/background relationship you want.  More important than anything else.  Once we had the lens, distance from camera to subject and subject to background figured out we'd start to light.  My first step is to light the background or, in the case of the image above, to see how we'd use the cool light already existing in the scene.  I metered the background and established a base exposure for that.  From memory I'd say we were looking at f8 at around 1/15th of a second with the ISO 100 film.  Next step is to figure out how to light the subject.  We went with a small (32 inch) umbrella with a black backing used to right of our subject.  A white reflector, used close in, provides fill from the other side.  Our final light is a small flash ( probably a Metz ) dialed way down and used on a stand right behind Anne's head.  Only when we had moved all of the lighting components into place and had metered them with an incident light meter did we pop our first Polaroid.  Why not pop one at every step?  Easy, they cost about $2.50 each to shoot at the time and I'd rather do the technical stuff with a bit a of rigor and pocket the money we'd waste on iterative and unnecessary tests.

At this point we'd bring the client into the mix (they generally sat in one of the conference rooms during our quick set ups and caught up on work...), snap one more Polaroid and then work through two whole rolls of film.  A whopping 24 frames.  Sometimes, when we were running low on film we'd call it a wrap in twelve shots.  Confidence in your own technique was a requirement back then.  There weren't many other alternatives.

Once we got what we needed we'd talk to the client about how long it would take to do the next set up and where we would rendezvous.  Then Anne and I would label the film from the location, bag it with the relevant polaroids and move on.  At the end of the shoot we'd divide the film up into two batches.  One roll from each set up.  Then we'd have the lab run one batch, and then the other.  This was like cheap insurance that let us know we'd know that, even in the face of abject lab failure, we'd have one roll of images to fall back on.  For the most part the labs never failed (except on one of my biggest assignments on 4x5 sheet film for IBM.....but that's another story...).

The role of the assistant on shoots like this was more involved than it is today.  They'd be responsible for labeling and keeping track of the film.  They'd pack it, load it, unload it, label it, bag it and keep track of it at all times.  We trusted our meters back then and the assistant had a meter as well as the photographer.  I could stand at camera position, pop a light, and depend on my assist to meter the pop from the right position, holding the meter in the right spot and then jotting down the readings in a little notebook in case we changed cameras and lenses and needed to go back to our reference exposure.

On shoots where we shot lots of images loading film backs on demand, always correctly, was a skill in demand.  When we got back home we'd unpack and the assistant would take the two batches of film to the lab and give them any necessary instructions.

I use assistants far less often for interior shoots these days.  And usually it's in the capacity of setting up and tearing down lights.  There's very little else productive for them to do while we're shooting.  My current assistant sometimes operates more as a producer, lining up models, getting props and figuring out logistics.  As we relentlessly downsize both the type and quantity of gear (and the budgets) the rationale for using assistants on a frequent basis also shrinks.  On outdoor shoots you need a good assistant (if you are lighting) to keep the light stands up in the wind and to carry the sandbags to the location from the car.  It's also good to have an extra set of eyes on the gear when out with the public....

Well, that's all I really had to say.  I was just struck, when I saw these photos, with the memory of how much work and skill it used to take to do a shoot versus what is required now.  I recently did a hospital shoot and mostly used a Canon 5Dmk2.  Our most rigorous lighting challenges were easily handled by a clean ISO 800 or 1600 and a little foundational supplementation with a small, TTL cabled flash.  Our value add had nothing to do with technical stuff and everything to do with directing and building quick and effective rapport.  That and seeing the right angles, composition and gesture.

When people talk about the challenges of photography today, as they relate to technique, I just roll my eyes and think of the quote about Ginger Rogers.  That's probably why so many older photographers are a bit resentful about having learned so much good stuff in their careers. Stuff that is being tossed by the wayside.  We'd like to be able to show off just how elegantly we could dance backwards with a view camera......


Dan said...

An excellent analogy, Some of the shoots were like a dance. Making sure everything came together just in time for you"the Photographer" to take your bow.

Dave Jenkins said...

Kirk wrote: "That's probably why so many older photographers are a bit resentful about having learned so much good stuff in their careers. Stuffed that is being tossed by the wayside: We'd like to be able to show off just how elegantly we could dance backwards with a view camera..."

That's exactly how I feel. But who cares? Nobody but us. Buggy whips and dodo birds.

Rob said...

Dad, did you have to walk to and from school in the snow uphill both ways? :)

I wonder how this article would have sounded written in 1981 from the point of view of someone used to 1940's era technology.

Ken Driese said...

I understand how you feel, and I've had similar feelings about activities that I've been deeply involved with for decades (for me, it' been more about rock climbing and a little less about photography, which is a serious avocation). The temptation is always to point out how much harder it was for us in the old days with the ____________(fill in the blank with old equipment/technology) that we were dealing with. But in fact, I think each generation takes the tools that they have available to them and runs as far as they possibly can with them, working and creating and pushing the limits just as much as any previous generation has done. Of course there are exceptions to this, but it's hard for me to take anything away from what is being accomplished today.

John Cavan said...

I have a friend who is always telling me that without feature X in the camera that you can't do something. Then I point out examples of people doing that with old manual film cameras and he goes into denial on it. I think people want to believe that the gear is the secret, not their eyes and their hands.

Dave Jenkins said...

Explanatory Note: Rob, the above poster, is my son. He is a writer and a professor of English at a college in Georgia.

Actually, Rob, I only walked five miles from school in the snow one time, and it was both up and down-hill. But I did walk a mile each way every day to catch my school bus, in rain, snow, or whatever.

As far as the technology differences between 1940 and 1981, they weren't as great as from 1981 to 2011. Films were slower, and electronic flash was just coming into use, so photographers of the day mostly used hot lights and had to deal with longer exposure times. Also, since the quality of the films available was not as good, most photographers used larger cameras, which also meant increased exposure times. Nonetheless, some of the greatest photos every made were created in those days.

There was a lot of technical stuff to learn in 1940, and still quite a bit in 1981. Mastery of the technology was enough by itself to enable many reasonably successful careers, and frankly, I miss the days when my technical superiority counted for something.

Now, there are few technical barriers to successful photography. Most photographers will rise or fall on the basis of their artistic vision and their business ability. People of this generation simply see things in a different way than previous generations, and, unlike Picasso, I have difficulty keeping up with the zeitgeist. That's why I've chosen to specialize in architecture and portraiture, two fields which still require at least some technical mastery.

Dave Jenkins said...

Actually, Rob, even though you're not interested in photography, Kirk's blog is well worth reading for the writing alone.

kirk tuck said...

Rob, I always wonder what will happen to my son's generation if the power ever goes out....

kirk tuck said...

Guys, I don't think I posted this as a "woe is me. See how bad I had it in the old days..." as much as I intended it to be an explanation of our dissonance over much of the new tech. There's nothing we can't assimilate into our knowledge base but the real question is "have they really invented a better mousetrap?" Or did they just switch from wood to plastic?

Or, will operating a player piano really make you a better pianist?

Or, will swimming slowly with fins on really get you into shape to swim fast?

Or, Did iDrive on the 2005 BMW's make you a better driver?

Did the i7 chip set make you a better writer?

Did those Nike Pegasus shoes help you break the four minute mark for a mile yet?

To Rob: In my day we put broken glass in our boot (only had one) to make the five mile climb to school tougher....

Don said...

I remember "Formats" like it was yesterday. Wait - it may have been.

I have 4x5, 5x7, 8x10, 6x6CM, 6x7CM, 6x9CM, and 35MM cameras. When a job would come in, I would have to make some decisions on which format, which film, and the processing of that film to present to the client.

A shot would be laid out in front of me and I would think - "Man this would rock on 8x10", or I think 6x7 will be perfect because of _________________."

I know what you mean Kirk. Lost arts part of the craft. I don't think that hurts the new photographer, but I do think the loss comes at a price.

What that price is we will not see until we can look backward a few years. I think it may be more than we expected it to be.

kirk tuck said...


I very much agree. Will the next generation be able to do "perfect" instead of just "good enough" when they have to?

Can anyone still make a Stradivarius violin? Really?

Dave Jenkins said...

Technology is wonderful and has many benefits, but it is not the same as technique, and I don't think it will ever supplant technique.

As Fritz Henle wrote in his book "A New Guide to Rollei Photography," "...seeing pictures is always tied up with technique...it is important to decide things like sharpness or unsharpness and not let them happen accidentally. It is equally important to command the techniques that get the effects you want."

Shooting in Program mode will often get you good enough, and once in a while, near-perfect. But knowing what you're doing will get you closer to "perfection" much more often. And it will give you much more satisfaction.

While I'm on a rant...Technology keeps giving us tools that require less and less skill to use. As artists and/or craftsmen, how are we to get the thrill of creativity or the satisfaction of craftsmanship from the use of tools that require little or nothing from us? Why should I congratulate myself for making a photograph a chimpanzee could have made?

Bold Photography said...

Wow - what great comments to this post!

My first thought was "this is why I bought my 500c/m -- manual everything, no batteries..." ...

kirk tuck said...

Shot five rolls of Acros 100 Fuji black and white today in my Hasselblad. Felt "oh so good."

Wil said...

"It's also good to have an extra set of eyes on the gear when out with the public..."

An extra set of eyes is helpful for SO many things. I can't count the number of times my wife or a friend pointed out something amazing that I wasn't seeing, or found a flaw in my composition before I wasted time shooting.

As for comparing the "old days" to the new, I have mixed feelings.

Having a modern camera with all the bells and whistles doesn't make you a better photographer, any more than having perfect and new kitchen gear doesn't make you a better cook. But sometimes it sure is more convenient and hassle-free.