What a week. What a life.

This, of course, is Ben. Years ago. Dynamic range?  You bet.  It's called negative film.

I'm always amazed at the lunacy of the web.  I posted something about using a homemade florescent lighting rig for a specific need and I've waded through several blogs about how I must be a cheapskate or a noob or a person who doesn't care about my clients or someone who only cares about "good enough" instead of great photography.  How handy to have other people make my point for me and even put an exclamation point on it for good measure.  I am, of course, referencing my post this week entitled, "You can't use that.  It's not professional."

In the early 1970's, even in to the mid 1970's there weren't any readily available, affordable softboxes.  Certainly nothing light enough or small enough to take on location.  But photographers looked at giant, metal "scoops" and "softlight" fixtures (made of metal and mounted on dedicated light stands) and they adapted them for location work by making their own "softboxes" out of foamcore panels and tape and sheets of diffusion material.  Then Chimera and Photoflex followed with their own portable designs.

There's a rich tradition of the very best photographers making their own, "do-it-yourself" devices when the need arose.  A great photographer named Peter Gowland even started a side business making and marketing interesting cameras like a 4x5 inch twin lens reflex camera, the Gowlandflex.  It's only in the age of digital photography that it seems that photographers have become such unimaginative wimps that they only feel comfortable with the (mostly) dreck foisted on them by the hive of companies that swirl around the periphery of photography offering up silly crap to the rubes.  Did everyone give up their balls when they got issued credit cards?

On one forum a very challenged poster postulated that my makeshift florescent fixture could, at any moment, fly apart and cripple my clients and everyone within a 200 meter circle.  Imagine the liability!!! He suggested that if I had the financial wherewithal to buy a "professional" product I would be spared this devastation and loss of human life should the assemblage ever be "knocked over."  I can only say, "moron."  

But the sad thing is there are legions of photographers running wild in the world who equate spending money on branded gear as the zenith of professionalism.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The guys who shill the gear directly for the makers get paid and get gear in exchange for constantly chattering about their wedded brand.  They have a fiscal relationship with a manufacturer.  It's in their best interest to interest you in buying what they use.  The relationship continues.  The marketing advantages continue.  The pipeline of gear continues.  But it does raise the overall level of photography? No.  And it keeps too many smart people from experimenting and inventing their own solutions.  And having the satisfaction that goes with personal success.

But if you are doing this as a real business instead of entertainment for amateur photographers you use the gear that matches the project.  And sometimes you make that gear by hand.  The crews on films that cost 100 million dollars to make have been doing it for years.  They have access to the best stuff imaginable but sometimes they invent their own lights for special needs.  And they work with manufacturers to make it in a repeatable fashion because, once other film makers see the results they will probably want to try something similar.  Kinoflos were invented on the set of a police movie for under dashboard lighting and small area fill.  Now they're the big name in professional florescent fixtures for video and film.  But it was a lone gaffer or DP whole came up with the idea and did the initial product.  Same with the first uses of LEDs.

Buying everything off the shelf means that you're doing stuff the way everyone else in the business does the same stuff.  That's called "boring." Real pros modify, adapt and create. They use off the shelf gear but they use it in their own way.  Hotshoe? Really?  See David Hobby.  See Syl Arena. They looked at the hotshoe for mounting flashes on their cameras and they said, "We can do better." And they used the flashes off the camera.

The monetary price to enter this field isn't much.  It's not about the "best" gear.  It's about the best ideas and the diligence and patience to pull them off.  The best work I see nearly always comes from the kid who's 30 days from being evicted, doesn't own more than a body and a few lenses and has an overflowing box full of ideas.  The more gear you need the weaker the concept.

You need a box with a sensor (camera), a lens, some light and a subject.  Then you need an idea, a point of view and the ability to make it all happen.  That's it. Bob Krist talked about using king sized bedsheets as a diffuser in a pinch. That was years ago.  That was before people marketed ScrimJims or Photoflex panels or Chimera Panels.  People started asking for ready made panels after Bob Krist used the bed sheets and talked about it in his first book.

An American Express Platinum card with a stratospheric spending limit never made anyone a great artist.  

But that's just my opinion as a noob.

My favorite comment.  From Scott Baker:  All true, Kirk. When fans of a specific brand see the introduction of a new much anticipated camera, it is such a deflating experience if the review sites label it "enthusiast" or "advanced amateur." They would love the camera if it was labeled "professional," but because the label said "enthusiast" the collective gasp is FAIL! Then the genius comments start coming in like "don't they realize that if they made a professional level camera with (insert XYZ specs) and sold it for (insert figure about $1000 under going rate) they would corner the market?! Don't they realize what we NEED?!" If I was to introduce a camera it would be called the Pro Elite Professional Pro 1.


  1. It's bemusing how much people seem to think "professional" is something you can buy, and I say this as a thoroughly amateur photographer.

    There is relentless and apparently very effective pressure from marketers of every sort, and the overwhelming message is that you simply must buy their crap if you want to do a thing -- there's just no other way to accomplish a goal.

    I recently picked up amateur radio as a side hobby, and while it's certainly not everyone's cup of tea, the DIY aesthetic that still survives is nice. Of course there are plenty of "appliance operators" but there's still a thriving subculture of people doing things from sending camera-equipped balloons into space to transmitting morse code around the world from a home-built, battery-operated box.

    Real progress comes from real people in the field pushing the limits of what's available, not from using the latest canned crap pushed out for the herd. But appliance operating is so much more comfortable and safe...

  2. You should really consider your actions, Mr. Tuck. You're going to start killing people by the amount of sense you make...

  3. I remember Dean Collins writing a little monthly two-page blurb in photo magazines in the 80's showing how he lit his photos. He used lots of PVC pipe and bedsheets. I thought that made him even cooler.

    I've had occasions where improvising during a photoshoot was the only way to solve a problem. The clients were always thankful (and impressed) that the problem was solved, some even more so because of the uniqueness of the solution.

    Improvisation a better response than saying, "Sorry, nuthin I can do..."

  4. Most people are idiots.. that's my policy anyway.

    I am a cheapskate err (read: DIYer) and love to do things like this simply for fun if not for some photographic purpose. The end justifies the means.

    Here is a good example, done for the simple fun of it.
    A friend from Baltimore sent me some Kodak motion picture film, Vision 3 stock I believe. So in order to test what I can do with it I shot it in my ancient old Zorki4 rangefinder.
    I used a measured piece of string to get the focus on my self portrait just right, This is a colour negative film requiring a special process so instead of spending the dollars on proper (ECN2) development I went ahead and souped it in D76 and scrubbed off the remjet backing by hand.
    How about that it came out perfect! the light for this shot was by a big stainless bowl I bought from the grocery store, I cut a hole in the back and attached some elastic to hold a small manual flash in, I hooked this up on a spare tripod and stretched some fabric over the front (also affixed with elastic) and the result is as below.

    Sometimes there is a genuine need to be creative with what you have at hand, other times it's just plain fun!


  5. I look at the prices of some "pro gear" and wonder how something can be so expensive. Then I remember there are thousands of people who will buy the stuff because it's supposedly "Pro" and so owning it draws them one step closer to being "pro caliber photographers".

    I first learned of how "pro" improvising can be about 30 years ago when I was at an event with a pro photographer friend. I was shooting on camera flash, but the ceiling was too high (and off color) so bounce was out of the question. He shook his head. "Shadows are going to be too harsh" he mumbled as he took a styrofoam cup and slid it over the front of my flash unit. Instant softbox. When we looked at the slides, no one could have guessed that the nice, soft lighting was the result of a 3 cent coffee cup.

  6. Check out the documentary Cameraman. It documents the great British cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, at work. He was the DP for so many famous movies including Red Shoes," "War and Peace," "The African Queen," and the "Barefoot Contessa." and even "Rambo: First Blood Part II." In this documentary, Cardiff is always having to invent stuff and rig-up stuff to make the shot happen. This is key... so the shot could happen. There is such a long history of it in cinematography and in photography as well. It is part of our heritage. Ansel Adams used dry his exquisite prints in microwave!

    Want to know the cheapest trick? I use a simple white foam coffee cup and my camera's histogram to take incident meter readings. Works like charm. But don't let my clients see me do this...Unprofessional!

  7. Talking about professionals, the guy who shot my wedding (in 2003), had his camera literally held together by duct tape! And the photos were none the worse for that.

  8. Amen brother. Here's my contribution to making your own stuff: http://kenhurstphotography.blogspot.com/2010/01/wonders-of-homemade-diffusion-panel.html

  9. As usual, a great point, Kirk. This one of Villads was taken using on-camera flash bounced into a white towel that his Dad was holding...


  10. Real pros get the job done. Sometimes, as my old sergeant in the Army was fond of saying "you gotta play it by ear", do whatever it takes to get it done. It doesn't matter what the gear looks like. What matters is, did it do what needed to be done? You got it done. The opinion of equipment snobs doesn't count. It's like all the spring clamps on the back of the dress in a fashion shoot. If you hadn't told them what you did and shown a photo of it, they'd never have known. Congratulations on your ingenuity.

  11. All true, Kirk. When fans of a specific brand see the introduction of a new much anticipated camera, it is such a deflating experience if the review sites label it "enthusiast" or "advanced amateur." They would love the camera if it was labeled "professional," but because the label said "enthusiast" the collective gasp is FAIL! Then the genius comments start coming in like "don't they realize that if they made a professional level camera with (insert XYZ specs) and sold it for (insert figure about $1000 under going rate) they would corner the market?! Don't they realize what we NEED?!"

    If I was to introduce a camera it would be called the Pro Elite Professional Pro 1.

    1. Thanks for giving us the "Pro Elite Professional Pro 1"

    2. Wasn't it introduced already ?
      Fujifilm X-Pro1 ?

  12. Agree with all, I don't know what these "Pro's" would do on location if they didn't have a piece of equipment they needed to get the shot. OH!! (Wait a minute I do know) they would hop down to the near store and buy the special piece they needed or just say that it couldn't be done pack up and go home....

  13. "Did everyone give up their balls when they got issued credit cards?"

    Somebody say Amen!

  14. It sounds like your just jealous of people with good credit. I'm awaiting the arrival of my D4 and have already opened a new credit card in anticipation of the D4s.

    Back to reality, I hope the maintenance guy doesn't turn me in when he comes to replace the lightbulb in my darkroom (or as its commonly known, the guest bathroom in my apartment). I have to admit, if you didn't know what was going on, all those bottles, graduates, timers, and mixing jugs might look suspicious.

  15. AdamR. Thanks for setting me straight. I thought credit was just your name next to a photograph in a magazine. Leica S2 system, here we come.

  16. Check out Brooks Jensen's video interview of Allan Bruce Zee in LensWork Extended 98. I really like Zee's images - especially his subtle use of indirect light. Zee started shooting around 1970 with a Pentax Spotmatic. Today, he is still shooting, with two Pentax Spotmatic bodies. If ever there was a case for "it is not about the gear," Zee's work is surely that case.

    Kirk, please continue to speak out. You are an island of rationality in a sea of gear babble.

  17. I owned a video production company for 22 years and one of things I had to keep on hand in the workshop area was plenty of 4x8 foamcore because visiting DPs were always making their own light modifiers from small boxes to huge light bending creations.
    I believe that Robby Muller came up with the original idea/need for Kinoflos on the set of Barfly when he needed to cram lights against the wall and into the corner of the bar scenes.

  18. Kirk, the only credit I accept is in-store. And Visa or Mastercard. That's the only way to make it in this business; that's the conclusion I've come to after years of being a professional forum lurker. And I'm glad I'm the one to convince you to ditch those toy cameras you've been playing with lately. Photography isn't about having fun, its about overcompensating. Please let me know what you think of the S2, I'm thinking about upgrading from my Nikon D40.

    (Whew, I think I've used up all my sarcasm for the day...)

    1. AdamR, you're on a roll today. Made me smile big.

    2. I'm glad I could return a little bit of the enjoyment I get from your blog. Keep on doing what you do!

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  20. In both stills and cinema, the best get chosen because of their ability to solve problems - to think on their feet.

    I was working as Ken Plotin's gaffer back in the '80s. We were working on a film, for IBM France, on the new bar code scanners. The director wanted to see the laser in action and he asked how could it be photographed. Very simple, I always carried a 6' wide roll of Clearprint 1000H tracing paper, which we used to make a rear projection screen. Easy to see the red laser scanning on the back of the tracing paper when shot from above. Took a couple of minuets, NBD.

    I was working on an Ella Fitzgerald Memorex commercial (remember how she shattered a glass with her voice - Is it live or is it Memorex). She was being lit by four 2k lights bounced off of a 4x8 foamcore. How do you flag it off the back wall - you use a 4x8 piece of Black foamcore. Used this on a video shoot last year, but we only needed a 1k Tota-Light.

    I love my Profoto gear, but I mainly use non-Profoto modifiers. A 20" Speedotron reflector makes a great quality of light, especialy when you use a Elinchrom deflector. I've used inexpensive PCB PLMs for several ads. Always use the right tool for the job, even if you have to build it.

    Buying the right gear won't make you a pro. Going to the right school won't make you a pro. Wha it takes to be a pro, lies between your ears ;-)

    BTW Blogger does't play nice with my Google account. It wants to call me anonymous, instead of c.d.embrey

  21. Thanks C.D. that helps me drive home my point to all the weak thinkers who depend on the logo on their gear for professional self esteem.

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  23. If a piece of equipment has to tell you that it's pro, that's usually the most reliable indicator that it's not. There are exceptions, of course, but on the whole I'm still suspicious of things like the Fuji X Pro-1, or Apple Pro Logic, or Apple Final Cut Pro X (Apple seems unfortunately to overuse the word "pro" more than most...)

    When the gold standard for a photographic reflector and flag--a 20x30 sheet of white foamcore--is so dirt cheap (I buy a bunch of them for $1 apiece when they're on sale at hobby lobby), and has never been improved on for its own merits by any photo gadget manufacturer, I think that pretty effectively proves that the gear is not the thing that matters. It's not whether you own a big reflector or softbox that says some name brand on it like chimera or elinchrom, it's how you use it; and if you hang a bedsheet and fire lights at it to get the same result as a $2000 softbox, well, that just means you got the same result for $1995 less.

  24. I work a lot on location shooting editorial travel. If i had $1 for everytime a camera bore came up to me and said " ...........(insert name of celebrity pro photographer) says you should do this with ....... (insert name of expensive piece of kit)." I'd be a very rich man.

  25. I am a relative old timer pro (back to 1979) - - - and I concur with your thoughts related to "Did everyone give up their balls when they got issued credit cards?". As someone who since first joining Zuga forum in the early 2000's - stressed being pragmatic so as to sustain a photography business as well as it being an advantage to promoting creativity - - - find that over the last 5 years or so such thinking is considered preposterous and the ability to purchase whatever anyone wants is a rite of passage. Where I once got support from other more experienced pros, that has even waned (although it's getting hard to find pros on forums any more - or determine if they really are). I am now chastized or ignored if I even suggest a logical approach may involve simplifying or being content.

    A funny logic that in a way is related to peoples priorities - regarding an image that I posted today on my journal but also on several forums. . .
    . . . The shot is of a sunset above the clouds. Different posters (who may even be the type of gearheads that switch systems on a dime) have responded that it "must be nice" or "Just a little expensive to get! I wish I could reach above the clouds at will" - - - implying that I'm finacially loaded and they could never afford sich a thing, and so I have an advantage. Funny thing I'm thinking is that it cost me like $300 return to hop on a Spirit flight and get cool shots I wanted (plus it got me to Costa Rica - although I could have shot to Florida and back for less).

    I have always had to pinch my pennies to support my business and my faily with photography and never purchased anything without being able to pay cash for it - and any purchase had to be financially justifiable by sustaining paying jobs that would make use of it. Increasingly I see such a distorted view of what "has value" or in what people "place their value". If someone really valued getting a shot like I got, they would certainly put aside some time and a few hundred dollars to book a flight - instead of drooling over the latest camera that they have prebooked using their credit card. But so many have a false sense of what gets you there as a professional or creative photographer - and then are envious or discouraged because they can't have it (especially after they are maxing out their cards in the hopes of gaining an advantage) - - - when chances are they can find satisfaction with far less than they think and a touch of ingenuity. But hey - the product marketing guys have succeeded in abolishing common sense, and pragmatism - - - and they have stiffled the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from working with what we have and can afford to become effective troubleshooters.

    Very nice post Kirk - - - this one as well as "You can't use that. It's not professional."

  26. When I was buying photographic services, I didn't know what brand of equipment was used and didn't care. I was paying for images.

    And with respect to DIY on the fly ... once again it was the result we were interested in, not expensive hardware. We didn't want to hear, "I can't do that because I don't have the required widget -- which I can order and get by tomorrow. There'll be an additional charge." We preferred, "I've got some stuff in the closet we can cobble together for that."

    And creative problem solving is fun.

  27. I miss the big white table I had in my living room in Jerusalem. Put on its side it made a great instant reflection screen for one light portraits, ...

    the pro-series convertopro graduated (more coffee stains on the short side) reflector.

    @ Scott Baker, plans are for sale.



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