3.05.2012

Sometimes one light is all you need.

One of my favorite portraits.  "Creating interesting portraits one person at a time...."

You can't use that. It's not professional.

This is a homemade florescent bank.  We cobbled it together to use it as a fill light in a giant data center that was all lit with similar florescent tubes.  It worked great.  The images were exactly what the client wanted.  It worked better than thousands of dollars of filtered flash would have.  It cost less than fifty bucks.  It's held together with tape and bungie cords.  There are chunks of cardboard that separate the tubes.  It's not pretty it just works.

Marketing works harder at sucking the individuality out of art and life better than just about anything else except poverty.  When you are poor you have to use what you have at hand.  But when you have enough pocket change rattling around you can get sucked into the whirlpool of "how the professionals do it."  And pretty soon you'll be shooting just like everyone else.

I wrote a column for Michael Johnston's blog, TheOnlinePhotographer, that ran on Sunday.  In it I talked about the Panasonic/Leica 25mm Summilux lens for the micro four thirds systems.  One commenter asked, in so many words, how I could convince clients that "Kirk+G3 = Professional?"
(The G3: referencing a < $550 small sensor camera).

This comes up in every facet of being a working photographer.  It's all based on looking in the rear view mirror of working life. How we did things a decade ago.  That's how it seeps into the current idiom.  The truth is that there's no longer any even imaginary line between what tools are professional and which ones are just screaming fun.  Now that the overwhelming target space for our "visual genius" is the iPhone screen or the website viewed in a coffee shop on a 15 inch laptop the metaphorical sky is the limit.  Not the number or provenance of our pixels.

Here's how I think of the whole subject...

Old school "pro" computer = The big tower with multiple processors and the giant monitor. The rationale: Big files demand fast processors.  The speed saves me time and money...

The reality = Most photographers would find the latest i7 equipped laptops screamin' fast.  And cheaper.  I ditched big computers in 2007 and I've never looked back.  My office set up right now?  A 13 inch Apple MacBook Pro with an i5 processor hooked to a 24 inch monitor.  Runs fast and works well.  

Old school "pro" camera = Canon 1 series, Nikon D3 series.  According the the experts who don't make money taking photographs any camera used by a "pro" must be weatherproofed, watersealed, shoot at 10 frames per second, have a shutter that will last far longer than their interest in said camera, and the camera must be made out of many pounds of metal strong enough to endure re-entry from outer space and impact with the Sonoran Desert at terminal velocity.  In the current space the camera must also have tons and tons of pixels.

The reality = Given that 80 percent of the images go to the web, that very few people make prints anymore and that ever advancing digital technology makes camera bodies more or less disposable there are tons and tons of people getting paid for making images with Canon Rebels, Sony nex5's and other small and delicious cameras.  The size of the body is meaningless as an evaluation of final quality in use.  My current small cameras spank the big, expensive cameras of yesteryear and our clients aren't really pestering us for anything better or more "spec'd."  Twelve megapixels is still the sweet spot for most work from a size/quality paradigm and sixteen megapixels is huge. 

Bulletproof?  The only two cameras I've had that required major service (or any service at all) have been a Canon 1 series camera with a defective circuit board and a Nikon D300 that backfocused everything in the universe.  The smaller, cheaper cameras?  In my small, anecdotal survey?  Much more reliable.

I'll trade face detection autofocus with eye preference over extra seals every day.  Makes my job easier.  Makes the focus better.  If I spent my days in San Diego, dedicated to photographing the Navy Seals in action I'd probably want an "everything proofed" camera but most photographers I know shoot in offices and in cushy suburban neighborhoods. 

I prefer using the micro four thirds cameras when it's appropriate.  They're more fun.  And, for most of the stuff I do the images are just great.  If you shoot sports you need something different.  But that's one of those YMMV things.  For ad guys the whole live view thing is a wonderful.  Do I need an optical view finder? Only to impress my hobbyist friends.

Old School "pro" lenses = The pervasive idea is big, fat, white zoom lenses with f-stops of 2.8 and lots and lots of knobs. Or big, fat primes with gold or red rings around the barrels. Heavy, weatherproofed and beknighted with a string of letters like ASPH, ED, UD, IF, and of course, LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL.

Reality? =  While I've got some bigger lenses in a drawer somewhere the stuff I use looks more like fun stuff.  I like little zooms like the 14-45mm zoom I have on my G3.  Or the 14-42mm zoom I have on my EP3.  If I'm lighting stuff the apertures are fast enough.  If I'm outside the lenses are always fast enough.  If I need better I switch to cute little prime lenses (at a third the cost of their bigger cousins)  with apertures that are just as fast as the "pro" lenses but give me a little more focus coverage because of their shorter focal lengths.  But more importantly not having to carry all the prestige around with me leaves me more energy to explore and be nice.

Old School "Pro" lights = Profoto.  Big boxes. Big monolights.  Lots of big accessories.  Many stands.  Lots of sandbags.  Lots of assistants to hold everything together.  In fairness though I should mention that the great middle of the professional market has transitioned to plastic flashes from Paul Buff without too much grumbling.  

Reality? = Most of the images I see could be made with a couple of $100 speedlights and a couple of slave cells.  My five figure project in December was done entirely with three LED panels (maybe $1,000 total).  You light with what you need.  Most pros have a small set of electronic flashes, some portable flashes and a few fun lights like LEDs or florescents.  If you need more you rent more.  The real art is knowing when to turn most of it off...

This pro versus amateur thing is so silly.  When I talk to guys who've been doing it for years I hear the same story over and over again.  They started taking photos with a (fill in the blank/advanced amateur camera) simple, basic camera, shot lots and lots of fun stuff that people really liked.  Went "pro" and bought all the trappings and then spent the next twenty years trying to get back to that simpler time. Why? Because everyone, including themselves, loved the images from the time when the pictures were about the idea or the emotion instead of the magnesium alloy and product positioning.

Remember the early cellphones? Remember when you owned the Motorola "brick"?  Was that more professional than an iPhone?  Could it do as much?

Remember the Buick Electra?  Remember when you owned that Suburban? Was it better transportation than your Mini Cooper or your Outback?

"Professional" is such a lovely advertising buzzword because it connotes acceptance of a defined standard. But what is professional video in the time of the Canon 5Dmk2 or the Panasonic GH2?  Is it still a $50,000 Sony Betacam?  Will it matter on Youtube?  Does it matter on Vimeo?  What if the smaller cameras create files that looks just as good? Or better?  Now you can afford to be a videographer.  Now more people can afford to be photographers.  All they need to supply is intelligence, taste and elbow grease.

In medicine and law "professional" means more training, not more gear.  

Old School Photographer = We conjure up the hip guy in black with a warehouse full of studio space, surrounded by high power popping flashes in enormous umbrellas telling hot models to pout with more energy.  The guy is surrounded by legions of assistants.  Some look at big screens as the photographer shoots.  Some shout out encouragement.  Some flirt with the hot client.  Some flirt with the coterie of hot models waiting in the wings.  Some flirt with each other.  All wait breathlessly for the magic.  All vie to be the next one to hold the prestigious medium format camera.  All wear their black baseball caps backwards. It's only for webcasts, only for TV.  Only for the movies...

The Reality? = For most it's a process of daily marketing, a trip to a client's store or factory or restaurant to shoot.  Setting up a few lights.  Taking good photographs.  Billing reasonable amounts and delivering images that will help to move a client's products and services.  Sometimes they'll bring along an assistant to help carry some gear up the inevitable stairs or across the parking lot.  Headshots in our smaller and efficient studios.  The day-to-day needs of local commerce.

Back to the original question.  Most clients who know the difference between professional camera models are themselves deeply interested in photography and would have shot their own products or people but they needed you to do so because something needed to be lit or people needed to be posed or the client could belay their ego and admit that you routinely found better compositions than they would have and they were willing to pay for your services.

If they know nothing about the nuts and bolts of photography they probably hired you because they went to your website and looked and saw what they needed to see and have/had a reasonable expectation that you'd deliver a similar and satisfactory product.  They didn't see your camera or your lights or your computer when they hired you.  Nor (I hope) did you bring the gear along to your pre-production meeting.  If you want to be considered professional your first obligation is to deliver at least to the level that you advertise on your website.  And the kind of gear you need in order to be able to do that is something that's up to you.  My wife is a graphic designer.  She couldn't care less what camera or lens I use on her jobs.  The final tally is binary.  I got the image she wanted or I didn't.  End of story.

Professional is how you act and deliver, not something you lug around over your shoulder.