Morning Jog.

 I made sure Ben bundled up against the wet cold this morning and dropped him off at cross country practice at 6:45 this morning.  Then I picked up a small, almost pocketable, slr system camera and went off for my own run around the lake.  I stopped when I saw stuff I wanted to photograph.
Nothing special.  Just a few scenes from a chilly morning.

If you click on the images they will get bigger.


Why is this one of my favorite portraits?

Program Note:  for more information about shooting portraits: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2011/01/thinking-about-art-while-swimming-how-i.html

What is it in a portrait that makes me stop and take a long second look and decide that I like it better than most of the others I have seen or taken?  It's an interesting question because it has so many layers.  This portrait has one attribute that's widely considered to be a flaw.  The subject is nearly precisely centered in the frame.  I could fix that by cropping but, contrary to common strictures, I think it works just fine the way it is.

I like a portrait that makes me want to know more about the person being portrayed.  I want the image to spark my curiosity in a way that pronounces the person's uniqueness.  I want the portrait to have a visual appeal that supersedes the subject herself, and by that I mean that I want the tones of the print and the contrasts between various elements in the print to have a life and vibrancy all their own.  I like portraits better when I don't have to decipher intentionality in the background elements.  In fact, I am so linear I don't really like background elements, which is why I try to consistently make them go away by putting them as far out of focus as I can.

Male or female I want each portrait subject to have a direct engagement with the camera.  There are very few portraits I like where the subject is looking out of the frame.  And in those few, if I am critical with myself, I know I only like or admire them because the subject is famous or so visually compelling (beautiful/sexy/powerful/grotesque) that I am influenced by the energy of the emotionally charged aspect of the subject's image.  I want the eyes locked on me as in a conversation.  I want to feel the engagement that the subject had directly with the photographer.  I want to be able to imagine myself in the place of the artist.  If I was the one who took the portrait then the direct engagement always seems to have more spontaneous and visceral impact  when I view it than a more indirect and more passive subject countenance.  

I am drawn to portraits where the subject is not locked in a grinning smile but in a responsive attitude that signifies a conversation was being conducted.  That he or she was sharing collaboratively in the process.  But most of all I want to feel that the subject had a genuine interest in the process.  And a genuine interest in the artist.

A pleasant afternoon spent in the studio with black and white film. And an actor.

I was remarking to Belinda about how the change over to digital had presaged my addiction to the wild merry-go-round of camera buying and how it was well nigh impossible to choose "just the right camera" to use in making the images I really want to make when she laughed, derisively, and said,  "The camera indecision has been going on since the day I met you.  You can hardly blame digital."  And I was prepared to defend myself because that's what guys do when they get called on their bullshit.  But I took a few moments to reflect.....
These studio images of Rene Zellweger reminded me of my dalliance in the small field of medium format cameras.  Convenient memory wants me to believe that I only dabbled in prestigious German and Swedish brands but actual filmic proof demands that I recognize that I also sampled most of the Japanese fare as well.  These images were done back in the early 1990's with the first Pentax 645 camera and whatever lens I was enthralled with at the time.  I remember liking the very hip sound of the motor and shooting at least twice as much film as I normally would have.  The lighting camera from a studio, electronic flash with a 60 inch Balcar Zebra Umbrella, covered with their unique (and thick) diffusion attachment.  These were the days when I eschewed fill light altogether so the one light is it.

I came to the Pentax 645 from the Pentax 67.  That camera was a beast and the film had a wonderful look BUT unless you were shooting in the studio that gigantic mirror took its toll interms of vibration and very slow flash sync.  It sync'd at 1/30th of a second and the mirror slap was agressive enough to create secondary image blurs even when mounted on a hernia inducing tripod.  The practice of the day was to only buy the model with the mirror lock-up and to use it on every shot.  Even when doing flash. You got your ten images and then you loaded again.  You can see why I was lured into the 645 system with its preloadable inserts and 15 images on a roll.  You could shot forever.  At one point I even own a second 645 with a fiber optic enabled Polaroid back to shoot tests with.  But the 1/60th of a second sync speed stunted my affections for that system as well.....

It was always fun to shoot with Rene.  She would show up and we'd shoot whatever one of us had in mind.  One day we'd go out and shoot cross processed negative film down by the train tracks and other days she'd float down the steep hill on Tenth St. towards Congress Ave. in a giant platform heels, a tiny black dress, a leopard print scarf and Bridgette Bardot sunglasses while balancing a coffee cup and saucer in her hands...(we were making an ART video about coffee entitled, "Coffee.  Is it a gift from God or a tool of Satan?" And we were using the very first Canon L1 high eight system in Austin.  Very bleeding edge.)  But the amazing thing to me, when I look back on our shoots is that fact that we rarely used the same camera twice.  There are negatives from both of the Pentax systems and from Leica M's, Nikons, Contaxes and Leica R's but we never did nail in a "favorite" camera.  

Which brings me back to Belinda's observation.  I've always enjoyed mixing it up.  In fact, I'm toying with the idea of opening a store for people like me.  We'd have a couple of all the coolest cameras and we'd charge a subscription rate.  Every day you could come in and trade out and use a different camera.  I haven't done my market research and it could very well be that I'm more or less unique in my indifference to routine.  Especially inventory induced routine.  But I don't think so.

None of my subjects have particularly cared which camera or lens or film I used.  They just wanted to enjoy the process and like the end results.  My only regret in my shoots with Rene and others at that time in my career is that I wasn't shooting with the square yet.  That would have made things a little more perfect.  As it is the work is still fun.  

It's cold and windy and wet today.  A nice day to stay inside and scan.  A nice day to blog.  I hope everyone is having a nice start to the week.


Gone out shooting. Check back later.

Becoming a photographer is a lifelong project.  It's important to pace yourself and enjoy the process.


Pocketability? It's a bad word and a worse concept.

Must find more pockets.......  Must find bigger pockets......

What in the world is with the latest metrosexual camera obsession called pocketability?  I was reading some well reasoned discussions about Olympus Pen and Nikon series 1 cameras and when I started to scroll down through the comments I found entry after entry downgrading the cameras because they can't fit into someone's tight, slim fit, rocker jeans back pocket.  Since when was that a concern for real photographers?  Pathetic.

So, now a camera has to have fully interchangeable lenses, a complete selection of super fast prime lenses, a fully programmable wireless flash system, a battery that will last for 10,000 actuations+ chimping,  amazingly noise free and noise-reduction-artifact-free files up to 12,000 ISO and it must fit into a space smaller than a round can of smoke-less (Skoal?)  tobacco in someone's pants pocket in order to be considered anything less than a "fail"?  (And while we're at it let's stop with the achingly cliched: "total fail.")

Let's step back and set some ground rules for the family here at the Visual Science Lab.

1.  If you honestly feel that the ability to cram a camera into your Levi's pocket along with your car keys is a most vital stat, please don't tell me that or write that in your comments.  I will not be able to resist critiquing your education, your taste and your tenuous grasp on sanity and logic.

2.  You can have pocketability but you are relegated to cameras where that's the only design imperative.  The Canon s95 and s100 and a few of the candy colored Nikon Coolpix cameras come to mind.  But we don't really like to talk about cameras here on VSL that don't have, or can't be retrofitted with, a grown-up viewfinder.  " Stinky Diaper Hold" is a camera handling technique that's generally thought of derisively around here....

3.  Don't expect any serious camera manufacturer to make a workable, interchangeable lens camera that fits in something the size of your pack of cigarettes.  Besides, where will you relocate your pack of cigarettes?

4.  Let's stop insisting on mutually exclusive design parameters.  Are there "serious" pink camera and lens sets?  Can you have a camera you can stuff into your wallet WITH an 800mm f2.8 lens on it?  I didn't think so.  Neither would Einstein have thought so.

5.  Speaking of price/performance/size compromises,  please, immediately stop slagging the smaller cameras because they won't do noise free performance on par with a Nikon D3.  One is $250 the other is $5,000.    Don't expect your Fiat 500 to match top speeds with an Aston Martin Rapide either.  (almost hit a brand new Rapide today heading toward the coffee shop because I was trying to yank my Hasselblad 500 CM with the 150mm out of the pocket of my Kenneth Cole Slim Fit slacks so I could photograph it!!!!  (sounds stupid, doesn't it?)

6.  I don't want to hear stories of how you were cheated in the warranty repair process after you realized the crunch you heard as you were sitting down was the camera in your back pocket.

7.  If you need a special tool or aftermarket attachment to hold the camera properly then it is too small.  If it slips through your Metro shelving and falls onto the floor of your studio then it's too small.  If you confuse your iPhone with your camera then the camera is too small.  If it slips through the seat cushions of your sofa.....it is too small.  Like saving money by buying a Canon 5D mk2 for video and then adding $10,000 worth of Red Rock Micro stuff to it to make it all work....

8.  Every time you whine about a camera not fitting into your English rocker pants pockets   mystic wood spirits kill another puppy.

9.  It's a sickness if your weight hasn't changed but you've switched from buying pants with a waist size of 32 to pants with a waist size of 44 inches just to better carry your "arsenal" of "pocketable" mini-cams.

10.  If you insist on panta-looney photography people will make jokes that start with......"Is that a toy camera in your pocket or are you just glad to...........?"

This photo is the minimum assemblage of gear recommended for daily carrying 
by the American Association for More Profitable Chiropractors. (AAMPC).

Seriously.  I understand that it's great to not carry around a ton of gear in your day to day life but just let a little more testosterone flow into the system and use one of the unobtrusive camera straps that comes free in the camera box.  Your camera will be ready when you need it (and where you need it), you won't have to hear lectures from your bespoke tailor about the "bump that's ruining the sinuous line of your trousers."  No jokes about dressing "left" or dressing "right."  And then, since you saved a bundle getting a tiny camera instead of a reasonable camera, you'll have acres of pocket space left for that dramatic roll of banknotes.  If pocket dimensions are an overriding concern then skip the mini-cam and get an iPhone 4-something.  Join Jack Hollingsworth in his pursuit to redefine photograph.....one quarter inch sensor at a time.

Hard to believe that some of the same folks who pine for "pocketability" are the same people who rush to the other side of absurdity and put giant, militaristic, nihilist, Goth, Black Rapid Straps on their sane sized cameras......but that's a whole different discussion.

Apple Boxes. A very mundane accessory. Priceless when needed.

This is Martin Burke as the mouse in a new kids play, 
based on the children's book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

I love working with talented actors and I had a romping good time with Martin in my little studio today.  We were shooting marketing photos for post cards, posters and the endlessly starving web.  Unlike "civilian" subjects actors of Martin's caliber make a photographer's job really easy.  In the course of 30 minutes we had 225 keepers in twenty or thirty different poses.  We were shooting under the watchful eye of Zach's collateral designer, Rona.  

Before they got to the studio I set up the lighting using two Elinchrom D-Lite 400 monolights.  I wanted a harder light than I usually use to sharpen up the edges of the images so I used a 28 inch, silver beauty dish, with no diffusion, for my main light source.  I filled in with a smaller, 18 inch silver beauty dish that was wearing it's white diffusion "sock."
That's all the light we needed.  I set the light levels for f5.6 at 1/60th of second, ISO 100.  Two test shots and we were ready to go.

I'd been waiting for a simple studio shot like the one above to test out the Nikon V1 combined with studio lighting.  I used the SBn5 I have on loan from Nikon to trigger the studio flashes by setting the flash in the manual control mode and dialing the power down to 1/16th.  I pointed the  on camera flash over to one side so it would have no effect on the subject illumination.  The images were all easy to work with and one click of the lens profile button in Lightroom release candidate 3.6 does nice stuff for the 10-30mm lens.  The files were shot in RAW.

Most of photographs were standing shots but we also wanted to do a few seated images so out came several of the cheapest and most useful studio accessories I have ever acquired:  The Apple Crates.  These are boxes, made of wood, that were born in the movie industry.  What you see in the image above is what is referred to as a full Apple.  They measure 20 x 12 x 8 inches and they are plenty sturdy enough for anyone to stand on.  The people who make Apple Crates also make "half apples" and " quarter apples" which are shorter in the smallest dimension.

We use them to do so many things.  I used one (inappropriately) to stand on and clamp off my white background paper this morning.  They are valuable as posing blocks and they are especially valuable for photographers who, like me, are five feet, eight inches tall... or shorter.  You can stand on a sturdy Apple Crate when you need to do eye level portraits of desperately tall people.....

Quick Note on the Nikon V1:  Now that I've done three or four charge cycles on the batteries I am getting a lot more frames per charge (fpc).  When I shot a dress rehearsal on Tues. I shot over six hundred images and the battery meter indicated that I had 72% battery charge remaining.  After shooting an additional 225 frames today, with puny flash in every frame, the counter is only down to 60%.  I think the eye level viewfinder might be much more energy efficient than the rear LCD screen.  At any right I am now, officially, happy with the battery capacity of the camera.


Playing around with actors. White background musings.

Outtake during our set up.  No post processing.
 I packed up some lights and went to shoot some photos for "The God of Carnage," at Zach Scott Theater last week.  A quick assignment to shoot two couples against white.  The images will be used online, in a post card and in print ads.  I lit the actors with one big beauty dish from 45 degrees to one side (main light) and a second beauty dish on access with the actors as a fill.  The main beauty dish was 28 inches in diameter and the fill dish was 18 inches in diameter.  Both had white, cloth diffusers  over the front.  All the lights were my new, el cheapo, Elinchrom D-lite 400's.

We were shooting in the rehearsal studio so I had plenty of room to stretch out and to get the white muslin background as far back as I wanted.  I used two lights, one on either side, about ten feet back from the background to light it.  No modifiers on the background lights.  I've become lazy about white backgrounds.  In the old days we had to get them right.  Now, with content aware fill and refine edge in PhotoShop CS5, I think  the images are better off being clipped in post processing.  But that's meat to chew in another post.

I switched back and forth between the Olympus EP3 with the kit lens (and, for my Jedi Knight friend, ATMTX.....I put a trigger in the shoe of the EP3 and used the force by looking on the LCD screen on the back.....the vertigo was almost unbearable...  :-) ), and a Canon 1DSmk2 with an 85mm 1.4 Zeiss ZE.  Both at f8 and both at ISO 200.  That's the sweet spot (ISO-wise) for both cameras.  Looking at the images on the screen the difference isn't that much.  Either set of files would work just fine.  Yes, the Canon is a bit sharper and more detailed if I look at 100% but......  The images have the same overall "look and feel."

I saw the dress rehearsal of the play on Tues. and laughed out loud while I was shooting it.  Fun to have a whole theater as a camera test lab.  If you are in Austin you should see this play.  It's well done.  And if you have not seen The Santaland Diaries  you might want to stop reading in about twenty words and head to the phone to order tickets for you and your closest friends.  It's that good.

Live theater is fun in the way that live music is fun.  You love being in the moment.  You're aware there could be a "train wreck" and you're relieved when it doesn't happen.  Good night.

The dual edge sword of control.

We love to have the illusion of being totally in control.  At least I know I do. (the photographer during a particularly anxious period in my life.)

But my best work is nearly always the result of the things I can't or didn't control.  The move of a model's head, the glowering weather, a mis-set camera that makes a file I didn't expect and can't repeat.  The illusion of being able to control everything around us can be debilitating because we make it so hard for happenstance to have space to enter the equation.

We can't predict a real laugh and we can't engineer it.  We can just be ready when it occurs.  And it's the same with so much in photography.  I can't tell you how many times I've been on location, all set up and ready to go, and had the client run late.  The sun, which was perfect at the agreed upon shoot time, starts to move into the "wrong" position, shadows move over into my perfectly conceived space and everything moves from "planned and controlled" into chaos.  

If I fight it I come away with something that meets the technical constraints of acceptability but mocks my vision of how great it could have been.  But, if I go with the flow of the situation I usually discover some better angle or nearby location that makes an even better image.

In the first photograph I was meticulously metering a location in a courtyard at some really nice convention hotel in Scottsdale, AZ.  The client wanted portraits against the background for attendees of a conference who would walk through the courtyard on their way to the main event.  They funneled everyone through me.   When I got there the wind was strong and the background flapped around, totally out of control.  I couldn't use big umbrellas because the wind would knock them apart and take my lights with them.  Even with the water bags I had positioned on each stand, as ballast.  Eventually I freed the bottom of the backdrop so it could swing and flap in the wind.  I couldn't control it and I certainly couldn't "will" it to stay in position.  But as soon as I gave up control the wind seemed to die down and "schedule" itself only to be exuberant between sessions and not during them.

I hate handing people my cameras and letting them shoot photos of me.  But this time I gave up that control and actually had a great time sharing stories with an executive who was not only interested in photography but also in my role as a photographer.  

In the image of the young woman above I had a list in my head of the expressions I wanted to capture.  Joyous laughter wasn't on the list but it should have been at the top.  When I let go of the list and let the model take control she gave me more than I had planned for.  A wonderful smile that communicated well being and joy, and, incidentally, was the perfect image for a dermatology practice.

I've learned the hard way that the universe likes to toy with people who feel as though they can control everything, in the same way a cat toys with a mouse.  You'll get some slack but eventually the hammer comes down to wipe away your misguided belief in control.  If, instead, you learn to let go of the final result and work to get a good result you'll just about have fighting chance.

As a photographer it's a good idea to know how and why to do the "right" stuff.  The technical steps.  But it's a hell of a lot more important to recognize the overwhelming power (and sometimes hidden blessing) of chance.  The real secret is to be ready to go both ways.

Prepare to follow your plan.  Be prepared to abandon your plan.  Don't take the path of least resistance, take the path of "most fun."

Veiling glare or atmospheric haze or low contrast?

Reader, Nick, commented about the "veiling glare" issue in some older lenses.  And that may well have been his experience with some optics.  I went back to the images I shot for the previous article on the Olympus 150mm lens and tweaked each image with the black slider and the contrast slider in Lightroom 3.6.  Kind of like matching negatives to paper contrast grades in the old days of printing black and white in a darkroom.  I think that what Nick saw in the train shot is a a lot of dust and atmospheric haze (and some bad technique since I hardly nailed focus on the front of the train).  In the other images I think what he saw IS a combination of the lower contrast of the older lenses combined with some atmospheric haze.  They clean up okay when you through some post processing on them and we could probably do quite a bit more in curves, etc.  Just thought I'd throw this up to show a post processed version...... commentary welcome.