Speaking to Photography Students. Necessary. And self-revealing.

I am on the board of advisors for the Austin Community College.  We don't have anything to do with making policy, we suggest future direction.  It's hard to predict where our industry will be in a year or two years but we can take a good stab at some basics.  Lighting will always be important and even though styles might change the underlying fundamentals don't.  Business will always be about supply and demand.  About setting the right prices and policies for profitability and doing smart marketing.
We can also look into our crystal balls and see that video will have a big impact, in the future.

Once a semester my friend Bill Woodhull, who is the department chair for commercial photography, invites me out to scare the hell out of his students.  These are the students in the last year of their curriculum and they are in the required course about business.  Bill brings in lawyers to talk about rights and contracts, accountants to talk about accounting,  and several different photographers to give the students a reality check about what to expect when they leave the nest.

I started my talk a six thirty yesterday evening after fighting rush hour traffic for way too long.  We talked about these things:  The parabola of earning power in the creative industry.  The need to save up money so that you have a year of living expenses in the bank. The need to stay in good physical shape since lots of photography is full contact, extreme work (or at least constant rearrangement of furniture...).
The need to continuously market.  The need to build a consistent brand.  The need to accept credit cards.  The need to minimize expenses and maximize income.

But then we talked about something dear to my heart and the whole tone shifted.  We talked about how a real, collaborative portrait session actually works.  What happens after you've done the lighting, set up the camera, and posed the model?  What happens AFTER all that.  And it dawned on me that in all the workshops and classes and books and magazine articles I've never seen someone really explain how to go beyond the "smile for the camera" ten minute commercial portrait and work with a subject to create a connection and to create real art.  I shared the secrets I knew with them and in the process rediscovered what it is I love some much about doing portraits..........

And that would make a great workshop....

Thanks very much to Bill's students for helping guide me.  I think we all had a good experience.


Using inconsistency to baffle my more linear blog readers.

This is a frame from one of the Hasselblad Cameras.  We took it last Thurs. out on a highway project.  It looks much different to me than the same kinds of images I also took with my Pen EP3.  For what I need to do with this photo (above) the look is just right.  It's what I saw and what I imagined when I looked through the viewfinder.  Sometimes you want chocolate cake and sometimes you want blueberry pie.  Some times you want to wash it all down with milk and other times you want to flush it down with a mason jar full of cheap bourbon.

Cameras are interesting in that professionals and hobbyists seem to see them in two different ways.  I've got a bunch of them and they grow around the studio almost organically.  I see them as different ingredients for exciting visual recipes.  I seem them as sultry brunettes and sunny, exuberant blondes.  Some times you want to look at Rembrant.  Sometimes you want to look at Picasso.  And rarely, but occasionally you want to glance at a Jackson Pollock.  Some of my hobbyist buddies are aghast that I collect outside the rigorous boundaries of a single system.  All Leroi Nieman all the time.

Buy more cameras.  Don't watch the same episode of Star Trek over and over again.  Variety is the spice of life.  But don't go overboard.  All things in moderation......


The second day of shooting with the EP3.

People love to talk horse poop about stuff they haven't tried for themselves.  My favorite is the put down that you shouldn't buy micro four thirds cameras because you can't do narrow depth of field effects.  I shot this at Starbucks this morning while sitting around with a bunch of my swimmer buddies, swilling coffee.  Pen EP3 with Pen F 40mm 1.4 MF lens.

Let's get a few things out of the way first.  I walked into Precision Camera and paid for my Olympus EP3.  Olympus isn't sponsoring my review or giving me this stuff so I feel pretty okay saying just about anything I want about the EP3, good or bad.  I was immediately interested in the Pens on their launch because I am a collector of Pen F film cameras and their incredibly good Pen F lenses.  The stuff is downright amazing.  I rushed to the store two years ago to look at the EP1 and I passed on that camera. There was no way to do eye level viewfinding.  No EVF.  I'd have to wear reading glasses to see fine detail on the screen.  Just not going to happen.  But I didn't get too upset because I knew it was only a matter of time before they released a model with an EVF.  Well, we got the EVF in the form of the VF-2 and while many people don't like this solution I'm very, very happy with it.  In fact, I own two of them and now use one on the EP3 and one on the EP2 or the EPL1 depending on which camera I'm toting as a back up.  I got the EP3 a couple days ago but today was the first time I had free time to walk around and shoot with it.  I put the kit lens in the small bag but I also dragged along a bunch of the old glass, including the (All Pen F lenses from the 1970's)  25mm 2.8, the 40mm 1.4, the 60mm 1.5, and one of the two 50-90mm zooms.  It all fit, with my phone and an extra battery, in a bag about half the size of an 9 by 12 inch envelope.  The Pen lens are all metal construction with buttery smooth focus rings and the build quality (optically and mechanically) is nearly on par with older generation Leica M lenses.


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.


New and Improved.

This is Ben from about ten years ago.  He grew up (grows up) in the studio.  Tonight he needed photos for his Spanish class.  What did he do over the summer?  We jumped up after dinner and put together a collection.  Is it cheating if your dad is a professional photographer?

Isn't photography fun?  Maybe we should step away from our keyboards and go do some more photography......bye.

From geeky to creaky. The progression of life.

From black Canon AE-1 with a normal lens to an Olympus EPL1 with a normal lens in 30 short years.  Progress?  Entropy?  Real life?

The important thing is to keep shooting and don't look back!  We are not spectators in our own lives.  It's how we take control that makes a difference.

EP3 tags along with a real camera. Shots for business and shots for fun.

I've been working on an annual report for a roadway authority for the better part of a month now.  A day here and a day there as it works out.  Fine with me.  It's nice to have a break between shoots to take care of other business and do good pre-production planning.  Today we were out at a location where several large construction companies are building a massive interchange.  Lots of steel and concrete and big machines.  We were shooting soaring construction images to use as backgrounds for executive photos.  Seemed like a good idea to me, especially when the execs were only really available on days when the temperatures soared....


Caveat Emptor. What you see is a distillation.

Have you ever looked through a blog or a website and seen great image after great image and, while you were happy; after a fashion, for the photographer, you went away a bit dispirited?  You compared the work you've been able to produce every day for however long you've been doing photography and you can count the winners on one hand or, if you're lucky, both hands and both feet.  And the implicit message you get when looking at an image forward blog is that the photographer can do no wrong.  Give him or her a box camera or a cellphone and everything they point it at will be breathtaking, awesome, riveting and otherwise perfect and beyond the ken of mortal photographers.  Every morning you go to the site and there's something so entrancing that it just frickin wears you down.

We're human and we can't help but make comparisons with the people around us. Culture drives us to measure our accomplishments against the mean and against the curve busters.  But I'm here to tell you that it's largely BS and marketing in large measures.  I'm very clear on the fact that very few of the images I post to accompany the written (important) part of the blog rise even to the level of art.  Much less high art.  Some are interesting while some just show something I want to talk about....

But when you look at my blog, or John Paul Caponigro's blog or Joe McNally's blog and you really like a photo or a series of photos you might want to remember that the photos you admire have been cherry-picked from 10, 20 or 30 years of daily practice.  For each photo you admire there are hundreds, thousands, or, in the case of my work, tens of thousands of "close but no cigar" and "what the heck was I thinking" contenders to wade through.

If blogging required me only to use the photographs I've taken that I actually think are exciting, wonderful, insightful or emotive I think I would have stopped illustrating the blog after the first twenty or thirty offerings.  Like most introspective photographers I have a feeling of failure as I look through my files.  I have thousands of 4x5 transparencies of micro processors and circuit boards.  Nothing I would inflict on a general audience but a workmanlike history of the my sliver of the semiconductor industry.  I have files filled with literally thousands of head shots done for companies like Motorola and Dell.  The bulk of the people in the files are probably retired, have moved on to new start up companies, etc. but I can't bear to throw much away.  And, for the most part, while their mothers and children and spouses find them attractive the crowd is a mixed bag.  It's journeyman photography at best and certainly nothing to share as the example of a life's work.

There are medium format chromes shot for magazines that are dated and in some ways funny in their historic perspective.  Hairstyles change, clothing styles change and lighting styles change.  Gone is the fascination with saturated, gelled backgrounds just as fill flash at sunset has become the cliche of this decade.  By the time it filters down to every studio the fad is past and the trend setters are on to something else.

And so, when I look through the files it's the images of friends and family, people I've met in coffee shops and clubs and on the street that I've been able to cajole into sitting for a portrait, that constitute the images that resonate with me.  And some are nostalgic reminders of a wonderful time spent sitting and talking.  The images may mean more to me than to any audience.  And yet, I feel that this sort of distillation is part and parcel of every camera artist's experience.  Amateur or professional.

But the message to everyone who steadfastly continues making images in spite of the angst and negative inertia that comes from comparing yourself to someone's stream of greatest hits is this:  We are all the same.  We all struggle to make work that is relevant.  We all struggle with the niggling feeling that others know special secrets that make them better.  We all lack total self confidence (except for the sociopaths...).  We're all on a learning curve.  We all have the tendency to put our best foot forward and to cram all the stuff that didn't work back into the closet or the filing cabinet.  The masters you see whose work you think you'll never be able to equal are just as conflicted and just as unsure.  And you're seeing only the tip of their "iceberg" as well.

At its core the kind of photography we all want to do doesn't have quantifiable, objective measures of relative value.  All that matters is that the images you create resonate with you.  But I'll go further and repeat an idea that a friend of mine and I were talking about at breakfast:  As important as the images might seem the more important thing is to enjoy the process.

I don't put images up on the blog with the expectation that you'll use them as a measure of my quality as an artist.  Few of my clients are interested in blogs about photography.  They are not our audience here. My audience, as far as I can tell, are like minded photographers for whom photography is a joy.  For whom camaraderie, whether on the web or in person, is important and valued.  The enjoyment of photography is not akin to a pissing match.  There are no ribbons to be won here.  No trophies other than the lucky shot well seen.  In some little incremental way we are all moving the art of photography forward just by participating in the process.  A ripple that becomes a wave.

Good marketers distill their greatest hits down into a public persona.  I could do that with the meager handful of images I've made that I truly love but in the end it would be dishonest to the purpose of this blog.  And that's to share the love of photography and the discipline of working at the process.

Last word:  I was re-reading a book by Steven Pressfield about the life of Alexander the Great.  Near the end of Alexander's invasion of India his entourage was walking along a road and his advance people were clearing the way for Alexander.  A group of holy men was sitting in the road and refused to move.  As Alexander approached he could hear the animated conversation between one of his officers and one of the "naked holy men".  The officer said (and I'm paraphrasing):  Do you know who this is?  He's the greatest commander/leader in history.  Alexander has conquered the entire known world.  What have you done?

The reply from the holy man:  "I have conquered my need to conquer the world."